Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The "Mission" of College

For those of us in higher education, there is an age-old debate about what the primary mission of college is - to prepare students for productive careers, or to mold students into better citizens and community members. The tension is most keenly felt between the liberal arts and the professions. It's a divide that every institution experiences, either within itself (if they have both liberal arts and professional education on the same campus) or with the wider world ("pure" liberal arts schools have to constantly justify their existence to the outside).

Today the debate is as acute as ever. With a stagnant labor market, sluggish economy and high government deficits, universities and colleges are called on to justify the federal dollars spent on them in terms of their economic impact and contribution to the growth of business. As this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education points out, this is an ongoing conversation that affects all levels of the academy - all the way up to boards of trustees.

I should say by way of self-disclosure up front that I went to a "pure" liberal arts college, and loved it. I am a loyal alum, would not have traded that experience for anything, and hope that my kids get to experience the same. I got a first-class education there, and in the process came out a more developed person than I was when I went in - though the latter was more a function of learning to interact with my peers than through any formal college programming.

I also understand and agree with most of the arguments made by liberal arts programs about the potential value of those disciplines, both for career preparation and for making people better citizens and community members. Every year or so the New York Times writes another article about how businesses can't find employees who can write coherently, for example, underscoring the extent to which studying English really does give you an edge in the job market.

With all of that said, however, this latest conversation among trustees and university leaders about resisting the "pull" to "stray from their mission" of making better people instead of "just" doing job-training strikes me as a little disingenuous. It's not that these folks don't mean what they say - they are, I believe, largely sincere. The problem is that, if the "primary mission" of colleges and universities is to make "better people" instead of being job-training programs, there is precious little evidence that we're any good at it, and plenty of internal evidence that we have no idea what we're doing.

Take one of the more visible aspects of "good citizenship": voting. It is true, within any given election in the US, that the more educated you are the more likely you are to vote. See, the universities might say - a college education makes you a more engaged citizen! But this only makes sense if you ignore two really big trends over the last few decades: the substantial expansion of higher education (far more people go to college today than in the 1960s) and the long-term decline in voting (far fewer people vote today than did in the 1960s). If education is going up over time, why is voting going down?

It is also easy to point to examples of college-educated people being really horrible citizens and community members (Enron, anyone?) And there are certainly areas of the academy (MBA programs, perhaps?) that have some questions to answer about how people with their degrees so frequently seem to end up crossing ethical lines (the Wal-Mart bribery scandal being just the latest in a long string). Usually, the answer is, "well, that's not our fault - just a few bad apples!"

But in truth, we don't have any evidence that a university education systematically contributes to people becoming better citizens and community members. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't - but if we want to claim that this is the "primary mission," you would think we would want to gather the best data available. Yet studies of this sort of thing are few and far between, and data hard to come by.

Moreover, faculty have no real idea how to do this kind of education. Scholarly organizations may have small corners in which discussions about "citizenship education" take place, but by and large they are ignored by the rest of us - and that's in political science, where some of the most vocal public arguments are made. Promotion & tenure processes don't reward "citizenship education" even remotely. Teaching & learning centers on campuses don't have workshops about it. There are neither incentives nor resources for faculty to engage in this kind of education, and so by and large we don't.

There's a legitimate argument about whether this is a bad thing, or whether things are OK the way they are. But universities can't credibly claim that educating people to be better citizens and community members is the "main mission" without evidence that we're actually doing it, or without spending any time and energy seriously trying. If we really want to be "educating the whole person," shouldn't we be able to demonstrate that we actually are?

No comments:

Post a Comment