Sunday, September 13, 2015

Has higher education lost its way?

"A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad."
— Theodore Roosevelt

The nature of our society requires adaptation and change.  Some would even tell you it's the only source of constancy in the world.  The fact that change is so prevalent necessitates that educational institutions adapt with society to better instruct.  Of course, not all change is good.

Yet, the current permutation of what we constitute as higher education has taken a direction that no longer turns out the same product as it once did, and the net effect on society has been negative.  In addressing the issue of higher education, it would be fair to first consider the purpose of higher education.

Higher education once emphasized not only the acquisition of knowledge and a set of skills, but crafting a well-rounded, more polished individual that contributed to bettering society in a multitude of ways.  In 1852, John Cardinal Henry Newman wrote concerning the purpose of higher education, noting, 
But a College training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspiration, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political power, and refining the intercourse of private life. It is the education which gives a man or woman a clear conscious view of his or her own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them. 
 The focus of higher education has gradually drifted from Newman's concept towards one where colleges and universities emphasize only professional training.  Why did this shift occur and what does it mean for society?  

The digitization and high rate of technological development in the world has translated into colleges and universities vastly expanding their STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) programs.  Technological development and innovation are undoubtedly vital to the future of not only the United States, but the world.  These fields lead to better ways of living and an overall advancement of society.

Preparation for work in these fields is highly technical, and often is very concrete in terms of thinking and analysis.  The mathematician solves equations.  Computer programmers work in code.  Engineers are bound by physics.  These worlds are built on a complex set of systems and finite rules.
Even non-STEM fields require an element of professional training.  Teachers must learn different strategies, and hone skills for classroom management.  Businessmen must learn fundamental concepts of economics and law.  Psychologists must understand the scientific method.

Costs of higher education have also affected the mission of colleges and universities.  The costs of tuition, fees, and housing have increased dramatically over the last 20 years, and the median income of Americans has not matched the pace.

The average tuition and fees for an in-state student at a public university is averages around $9,000.  That, coupled with another $9,000 in estimated housing costs creates an enormous burden on those seeking a degree.  Students could be facing down nearly $80,000 in debt when they graduate and the degrees many of these people earn do not provide jobs that make it feasible to pay back those loans in a timely manner.

Higher education has also become too business oriented for its own good.  They seek to draw in as many students as possible to pay the exorbitant costs, without regard to whether or not many of these students should be in a collegiate setting.  If you're questioning whether or not we should be more stringent upon who enters college, then consider that the national freshman retention rate is approximately 67%.  One out of every three college freshmen will not return for their sophomore year.  Despite having sub-part academic records and very low test scores, colleges consistently allow students entrance without any regard for the financial impact on an 18 year old child.  For many schools, the quality of their dormitories is far more important than the quality of the education.

Part of the fallout from this trend is that students attempt to take only the classes they need to graduate rather than exploring their interests through electives.  Additionally, the schools are under pressure to scale back the number of courses needed to graduate or remove electives from the required curriculum in an attempt to assist students in saving money.  Doing so deprives these students of the balanced type of education for which colleges were designed.

Most schools have some sort of general requirements that all students must fulfill regardless of their major field of study.  Everyone remembers taking a fine arts credit – music appreciation, anyone?  The current mindset towards the arts and humanities also has developed because the increasing number of students in the STEM fields place their priorities on the classes they see as most beneficial to their lives and careers.  This leads to students spending the bulk of their time studying for the classes in their major.  Does a chemistry major really mind all that much if they earn a “C" in sociology or British Literature as long as they are successful in their science courses?

So, why should we necessarily care about this change in the objectives of higher education?  Do the humanities and arts even matter if students aren't majoring in them?  And why should people major in those fields?

First, the study of humanities provides a context to understand the sciences.  History, sociology, and anthropology, for example, demonstrates the significance of science to our lives.  They place technology and advancement within a scope that shows where we have been, how far we have come, and where we will someday go.

The study of the arts and humanities benefits the individual mind by generating a more compassionate and thoughtful citizen.  Studying other cultures, problems within a society, and probing psychology portrays people as more than just numbers, but as individuals who are working through life and the human experience.  As a result, these fields tend to generate a more personable individual who can connect and empathize with others more easily.

Scientific studies also (ironically) reveal that students who graduate with degrees in the humanities and arts compare more favorably at critical thinking and problem solving than their counterparts in the hard sciences.  These fields often provide more opportunity to break free from the constraints of the more finite world of science.

Most importantly, students of the humanities and arts also have a different outlook on the aesthetics.  They see not only the surface, but are constantly peeling back the layers of their observations.  They see a painting for not just its technical value in terms of the brush strokes, but for the sake of beauty itself.  These students look at a sunrise in a palpably different manner.  Novels are beyond being just a good story.  A ten line poem can speak immeasurably more than the most in depth biography.

When we subtract the arts and humanities from education, we rob both the individual and society. These fields of study provide an individual with a better understanding and appreciation for the world around them, and assist them in furthering the world in the sciences.  It is for their personal edification and the benefit of society at large to have more knowledgeable, well-read, and compassionate individuals. 

There was a time that if a person held a bachelor's degree, you could make certain presumptions about that individual.  They were articulate, well-read, thoughtful, civic-minded, and skilled in their chosen profession.  Colleges and universities no longer produce this type of person, and they do so at the peril of society.

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