What are the public responsibilities of private education?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about education for the public good and what that must mean. It’s a sign of an impoverished civic imagination that the most we can come up with is that the purposes of an education is to get a better job so you can raise American competitiveness in the global marketplace. I’ve been using Andrew Delbanco as a part time foil in these reflections. In a new interview over at Inside Higher Ed, Delbanco takes on this general issue yet again.

Interview with author of new book on the past and future of higher education | Inside Higher Ed
http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/05/02/interview-author-new-book-past-and-future-higher-education

If a college functions well, it should break down, or at least diminish, the distinction between private and public good. Genuinely educated persons recognize how much they owe to the society that has furnished them with opportunities, and they feel an obligation to give back. This doesn’t mean that a college should teach its students to be ascetics or try to turn them into saints. Personal ambition will always be part of what a successful education requires and rewards. But a good college fosters an atmosphere of public-spiritedness. It teaches its students that individuals depend for fulfillment on community, and that a true community is constituted by responsible individuals.

(via Instapaper)

I like so much of this, but I think Delbanco is only addressing half the question. That is, it seems to me we have a generally compromised sense of public-spiritedness as such in the United States. Our national purposes reduced drastically to a kind of civic consumerism. Students, we, imagine that we are being public spirited by pursuing what it takes to get a job, no longer conceiving of “the public” in a rich complex fashion that can be activated outside the context of warfare and external threats to abstractly defined freedoms. I agree with Delanco, but I wonder whether he is invoking an older notion of public spiritedness that has itself become impoverished. Education as a private good is reflecting a culture that can only image the public through private metaphors and private actions

[Side note: I met Delbanco in the bathroom at the Rethinking Success conference. He seemed stunned that someone had actually read his book. As opposed, I guess, to just reading the excerpts in the chronicle review]

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Can a liberal arts ethos and a professionalized research faculty co-exist?

I’ve been reading Geoffrey Galt Harpham’s recent book, Humanities and the Dream of America, whiling away the hours on my exercise bike.  Ok, half hours.  I’ve been struck by the similarities in analysis between Harpham and Andrew Delbanco’s analysis of the college as a distinctly American achievement, having just finished Delbanco’s meditation on the nature of the college a week or so ago.

For both, the fundamental antagonist to the ideals of the liberal arts has not been professional programs per se–though undergraduate programs in things like businesss, nursing, and engineering (and a host of others) are favorite bete noirs of our current humanistic discourse about the purposes of education.  Rather, for both the real threat lies in the research university and the ethos of specialization that it entails.  This emphasis of specialized knowledge is itself inherently narrowing, and is opposed to the generous expansiveness of spirit that, at least in theory, characterizes the highest ideals of a liberal arts education.

Like Delbanco, Harpham draws on Newman as a first resource for the fully articulated ideal of the idea that education should enrich our human experience, fitting us primarily for a life well lived, rather than for the specifics of a living.  I’m intrigued, though, that Harpham brings out this ethos not only as characterizing the curricular choices and the spiritual, ethical and cultural teloi of the undergraduate [side note, we no longer would use a word like teloi; we would invoke learning objectives];  more than that, this ethos characterizes the faculty and their understanding of their role in the life of the mind.

Moreover, the institution devoted to producing Newman’s protege bears little resemblance to today’s institutions of higher learning. Newman’s idea of a university had no room for either specialized or comprehensive knowledge, and the professors who taught there should, he fervently believed-it is the very first statement in the book-have nothing to do with research, an obsessive activity best conducted by those whose minds were too sadly contracted to engage in full life. …

Newman intuitively understood that the real threat to liberal education in his own time was not the shade of Locke but the spirit of research then crescent in Germany. By the end of the nineteenth century, the United States had begun to Germanize its academy, with some university faculties organizing themselves into departments that granted degrees that came to constitute credentials. With credentialing came professionalism, and with professionalism growth. President Lawrence Lowell of Harvard (1909-33) laid the foundation for Harvard’s eminence as a research powerhouse by encouraging his faculty to think of themselves as professionals.4 This meant adopting impersonal criteria of scholarly competence within each discipline, cultivating a spirit of empirical and methodological rigor, and coming to agreement about what would count as standards of achievement in a small, self-certifying group of mandarins

The new professionalism functioned as a way of insulating the university from extra-academic pressures by creating a separate world of academe that could be judged only by its own standards. But professionalism was accompanied by its dark familiars, partition and competition. A professionalized faculty was a faculty divided into units, each claiming considerable autonomy in matters of hiring and promotion, and competing with other units for salaries, students, office space, and prestige. Such competition naturally placed some stress on amity, and so while undergraduates were expected to enjoy four stress-free years in the groves of academe, the faculty in the same institutions were facing the prospect of going at it hammer and tong, competing with each other virtually face to face, for the rest of their lives.

Geoffrey Galt Harpham. The Humanities and the Dream of America (pp. 127-128). Kindle Edition.

This seems about right to me, and it might pass without comment, but it raises a troubling contradiction.  In most of the strong defenses of the liberal arts that I hear, the notion that faculty should abandon research or that the fullness of the liberal arts spirit is best embodied by a faculty full of generalists is never among them.  Indeed, quite the opposite.  We want an institution to display its commitment to the liberal arts precisely by giving more support to faculty research so that faculty can become more and more specialized, more fully recognized in their professional disciplines, more disconnected from the immediacy of their liberal arts institutions, and less able to exemplify the generalist qualities that we say we value as fully humanizing.

What this argument for the liberal arts wants (I’m not saying there aren’t other arguments), is a research university, or at least a research college, with a commitment to research in the liberal arts and all the prestige that entails.  What we definitely do not want to do is give up the right to writing books that no one wants to read so that we can demonstrate our particularly specialized knowledge.

The faculty, as Harpham recognizes, is fully professionalized, and in many respects in the liberal arts we have created specialized professional programs, imagining that our students are professors in embryo.  The college major is now, in many respects, a professional program ,and it is worth noting that the idea of a college major is coextensive with the advent of the research university.  Indeed, I have heard the argument that we should have much larger majors in the humanities than we do have because the size of the major is a measure of its prestige in the college, competing then as it would with the gargantuan programs in engineering, nursing, and many of the hard sciences, programs that students can barely finish in four years, if they can.  So much for our sentimental sop about the value of breadth of mind and spirit.

Can a research faculty that shows no real interest in giving up the ideals of research exemplify and support a genuine liberal arts ethos in an American college today (leaving aside the question of whether liberal arts colleges will survive at all)? I am not sure what the route out of this conundrum actually is.  I stopped in the middle of Harpham’s chapter where he actually has just noted that faculty in the liberal arts are essentially professionals and conceive of themselves as professionals in ways quite similar to their brethren in professional programs.  I am not sure where he is going with that insight, but I look forward to finding out.

Are Career Development Officers and Liberal Arts Professors Ships passing in the night?

The first day of the Rethinking Success conference was highly informative and stimulating, but also weirdly disjunctive in certain respects.  This was best represented in the two afternoon sessions.  The first focused on historical perspectives on liberal arts and careers and featured scholars from the liberal arts, Andrew Delbanco (Columbia) and Stan Katz (Princeton).  The second session, focused on Employment and Market issues featuring three panelists concerned primarily with different issues associated with careers and college–Philip Gardner (Collegiate Employment Research institute, Michigan State), Debra Humphreys (AACU), and Mark Zandi (Moody’s Analytics and Economy.com).

Independently these were two very good sessions.  Together I think they embodied a problem rather than elucidating it.

That is all the panelists were passionate about students, concerned about college and its roles in students’ lives, and convinced that we needed to do something different.  However, it was as if the two panels were speaking different languages or talking past one another.  The format of the sessions, which was tightly controlled and didnt really invite cross panel reflections or responses, contributed to this sense I had that we do not really yet have a common language to talk about the liberal arts and careers.  What we really have is two different groups talking about the same thing in the same place, but not really talking in a way that was informed by the other’s concerns.

In the first session Delbanco and Katz raised the traditional defenses of the liberal arts that one could expect of those steeped in and defending that tradition.  By contrast the market trends folk were emphatic about the primacy of career considerations in pursuing your college education. A few of my tweeted notes and paraphrases suggests the contrast:

  • From Andrew Delbanco:  Education is in essence, an effort to resist death, to preserve knowledge and pass it on to our children.
  • From one of the second panelists:  We need to be relying on venture capitalists who can see 5 or 10 years in to the future to predict the kinds of skills and emphases we need to be giving students in their education.
  • From Mark Zandi:  The dollar value of higher education has declined even as the cost of higher education has skyrocketed
  • From Andrew Delbanco:  We’re not providing students the time to reflect, the time for contemplation to reflect on who you are
  • From Philip Gardner:  Internships are the most important thing students do in college.

It’s not that there’s anything specifically wrong with any of these proclamations;  it’s just the these folks aren’t really in conversation with each other and it seems to me that they don’t yet have a language where they can converse.

There was one point of commonality on which everyone seemed to agree, even in their different languages, and that was on the need for breadth and depth, that it is not enough to train narrowly for a specific field but that the creativity and innovation that would be required for successful career paths in the future required a combinations of the two.

  • From Stan Katz:  Provincialism is narrow specialization. Liberal arts creates generalists capable of engaging the larger world.
  • From Gardner:  In this day and age you must either be a liberally educated technical student, or a technically savvy liberal arts student, there is no middle ground.
  • Gardner: Innovation comes from thinking broadly, between functions rather than only in your particular role
  • Humphreys–Narrow Learning is not enough. It’s not a choice between tech ed and big issue ed. We must have both.

I thought the second panel was a little better on this than the representatives of the liberal arts, perhaps because the broad and deep model is still somewhat embodied in systems of general education that rely–in however wan and half-hearted a way in many professional and technical programs in university settings–on a liberal arts ethos.  Ironically, this problem is harder for the denizens of the liberal arts because we have to think through the question of what it might mean for our “deep education” in a liberal arts discipline to be come more deeply connected to the workplace.  What would it mean to develop a technically savvy graduate of a liberal arts program.  One solution would be to reimagine  the general education programs we have so that they had higher components of technological learning–and I think that’s something to consider.  Another possibility would be to think about how to transform our majors so that they insist on higher levels of technological competence as that is appropriate to our changing fields, as well as deeper levels of engagement with the translation and transition of skills from the academy to the marketplace.

And I think that’s something to consider as well.

Interview with Andrew Delbanco: Students, you have saved others, now save yourselves

Following up on my recent posts on Andrew Delbanco (here, here, and here), there’s an interesting interview with Delbanco on the Chronicle of the Higher Education as part of their Afterwords series, speaking further about his recent book:

Andrew Delbanco Interview–Chronicle of Higher Education

Mostly Delbanco covers the same territory here, and again, I admire his ideals.  I remain struck, though, by the way in which he puts the onus on students to resist the commercialization of college life. Again, I wonder, why is it up to students to do this.  Don’t they, most of them, end up working with an overwhelmingly overdetermined system, hopelessly recognizing that a college or university degree is necessary for their success in life, and realizing at the exchange of several tens of thousands of dollars in debt they are being offered a chance at a reasonably secure existence.  How can it be up to college students to resist this commercialization when college and university life is so thoroughly commercialized from the moment of the transaction–through admissions decisions that consider the ability to pay, to financial aid offerings, to debt loads, to student jobs necessary for paying basic expenses.  What student could avoid understanding that there is a deeply commercial angle to the transaction.

Note, I am not saying the commercialization of higher education should not be resisted, but it seems peculiar to me to put emphasis on the need for students to do this.  The question ought to be, how do we change the structures of higher education that are making the commercialization of their education inevitable.

That is a tougher nut to crack than pleading with undergraduates to resist pecuniary interests and take humanities majors anyway.

What College Should Be: Andrew Delbanco’s Errand in to the Wilderness

I finished up Andrew Delbanco’s College:  What it Was, Is, and Should Be last night, swiping to the last location on my Kindle app just as I was finishing up my nightly effort to subdue the flesh on an exercise bike at the Y.  As you know, I’ve blogged a bit about about Delbanco and his investigations of college life a couple of times recently,  here, and here, and here.  Last one, I promise, but since I have actually finished the book I thought I ought to at least make a couple of summary comments.

First,  Delbanco is very good on analyzing and representing the ideal values of the college education as it existed in the past.  Especially, Delbano points out that our current discursive emphasis on an education for jobs–a rhetorical and imaginative virus that affects our president and our Tea Partiers alike–is a new phenomenon.  Or rather, what is new is that a concern with jobs and economic well-being was always leavened by and even tertiary to other values.  Colleges existed to create and shape a certain kind of person, not a certain kind of employee, and so their function was essentially moral and ethical.  Colleges further existed to create public servants, not individual entrepreneurs, people whose goals was fundamentally the service of the public good rather than pursuit of private enterprise.

For Delbanco, these emphases within College life have been all but excised , at least in the rhetoric of their public rationale.  I think he’s right about this in large degree.  My own experience at such colleges gives me some hope that all is not lost:  Messiah College where I work defines its mission as educating men and women toward maturity of intellect character and Christian faith for lives of service, leadership and reconciliation in church and society.  That is the robust language of human transformation and public service that Delbanco eulogizes, and I think by and large we put our money where our mouth in our programming.  At the same time, here as everywhere, prospective students and their parents often choose between us and other colleges on the basis of what they learn from our career center, and students have certainly been choosing majors primarily on the basis of their perceived job prospects rather than on the perception that college life is about the kinds of transformation that can occur.  It is much the same at most faith based institutions that I know of, and Delbanco does a good job of showing how the rhetoric of economic gain rather than public service or  personal transformation has come to dominate even our elite national liberal arts institutions.

Secondly, I think Delbanco does a good job of showing how the actual life of institutions–as opposed to their rhetoric–has never been one of realized pastoral ideals.  In relation to the conflict between the quest for economic gain and the search for personal transformation, Delbanco points out that this has been a long standing conflict in American higher education.

One way of coming at this question was suggested around a century ago by Max Weber, who, not long before Sinclair Lewis invented “Winnemac,” proposed a distinction between two “polar opposites of types of education.” The types he had in mind correspond closely to the terms “college” and “university” as I have been using them. The first, associated with religion, is “to aid the novice to acquire a ‘new soul’  .  .  .   and hence, to be reborn.” The second, associated with the bureaucratic structures of modern life, is to impart the kind of “specialized expert training” required for “administrative purposes— in the organization of public authorities, business offices, workshops, scientific or industrial laboratories,” as well as “disciplined armies.” 1 Many other serviceable terms could be substituted for Weber’s— knowledge versus skill; inspiration versus discipline; insight versus information; learning for its own sake versus learning for the sake of utility— but whatever terms we prefer, a good educational institution strives for both. “The two types do not stand opposed,” as Weber put it, “with no connections or transitions between them.” They coexist— or at least they should— in a dynamic relation.

Delbanco, Andrew (2012-03-22). College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be (Kindle Locations 1635-1645). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

This particular passage encouraged me to some degree, if only because I feel this tension continuously as a dean of Humanities at a small school.  We are constantly asked to justify ourselves on the basis of the jobs or the security that we can provide and there seems to be no real room anymore for talking about the kinds of dramatic intellectual and moral transformation that occurs with some regularity as a student engages the great philosophical, literary, religious, and historical texts of the past, how much they have done for me in helping me overcome my own prejudices and ill-considered judgements, how they have helped to make me a better person than I would have been without them.  On the other hand, while I think the language of economic self-interest is ascendant and at the moment tipping the scales against the balance that Weber thought important, it is good to know that the tension between these tendencies has always been there, and that purity on either end would probably be unhealthy.  My own college defines itself as a college of the liberal and applied arts and sciences, building that tension in to its self-definition.  Where and how to find that balance is always the question.

I came away in the end being uncertain whether Delbanco’s book actually helped me answer this last question.  Delbanco’s book is best in answering the question of what college was.  As he gets in to an analysis of what college is he is better at showing anecdotally the kinds of things that are happening than providing and analysis of the massive social forces that have brought us to this point.  When it gets to the question of what college should be, I don’t think Delbanco provides a satisfactory answer.  Its clear that he believes we have lost the ethical and public service imperatives of an earlier rhetoric, however imperfectly those ideals were realized.  And to that degree it seems clear that he thinks we ought to return to those ideals.  However, there is no real road map forward , no real plan for how to achieve the values he desires, other than a few random allusions toward things like humanities programs that serve prison populations, or college policies that emphasize degree completion for the common person.  He calls for more collaboration with secondary schools.  All things I too would applaud or call for.

These are laudable instances, but hardly a plan for the kinds of problems that are facing institutions or facing the system of higher education as it exists in the present.  I felt in the end that Delbanco was more than a little like the Puritans whose educational ideals he admires.  The Puritans called for an errand in to the wilderness, but mostly clung pretty close to the coast, seeing the wilderness as dangerous and forbidding.  For Delbanco, the world of higher education is such a wilderness, a place roaring and full of devils, a place for the lost.  I didn’t see a plan here for emptying the forest of its demons, or sufficient directions for how and where to clear a path in the underbrush.

Is the decline of the Humanities responsible for Wall Street Corruption?

Andrew Delbanco’s view in a recent Huffington Post essay is “Yes”, at least to some indeterminate degree, though I admit that the title of his post “A Modest Proposal” gave me some pause given its Swiftian connotations:

What I do know is that at the elite universities from which investment firms such as Goldman Sachs recruit much of their talent, most students are no longer seeking a broad liberal education. They want, above all, marketable skills in growth fields such as information technology. They study science, where the intellectual action is. They sign up for economics and business majors as avenues to the kind of lucrative career Mr. Smith enjoyed. Much is to be gained from these choices, for both individuals and society. But something is also at risk. Students are losing a sense of how human beings grappled in the past with moral issues that challenge us in the present and will persist into the future. This is the shrinking province of what we call “the humanities.”

For the past twenty years, the percentage of students choosing to major in the humanities — in literature, philosophy, history, and the arts — has been declining at virtually all elite universities. This means, for instance, that fewer students encounter the concept of honor in Homer’s Iliad, or Kant’s idea of the “categorical imperative” — the principle that Mr. Smith thinks is out of favor at Goldman: that we must treat other people as ends in themselves rather than as means to our own satisfaction. Mr. Smith was careful to say that he was not aware of anything illegal going on. But few students these days read Herman Melville’s great novella, Billy Budd, about the difficult distinction between law and justice.

Correlation is not cause, and it’s impossible to prove a causal relation between what students study in college and how they behave in their post-college lives. But many of us who still teach the humanities believe that a liberal education can strengthen one’s sense of solidarity with other human beings — a prerequisite for living generously toward others. One of the striking discoveries to be gained from an education that includes some knowledge of the past is that certain fundamental questions persist over time and require every generation to answer them for itself.

via Andrew Delbanco: A Modest Proposal.

This is consonant with Delbanco’s thesis–expressed in his book College:  What it Was, Is, and Should Be–that education in college used to be about the education of the whole person but has gradually been emptied of the moral content of its originally religious more broadly civic vision, and the preprofessional and pecuniary imagination has become the dominant if not the sole rationale for pursuing an education. I am viscerally attracted to this kind of argument, so I offer a little critique rather than cheerleading.  First, while I do think its the case that an education firmly rooted in the humanities can provide for the kinds of deep moral reflection that forestalls a purely instrumentalist view of our fellow citizens–or should I say consumers–it’s also very evidently the case that people with a deep commitment to the arts and humanities descend into moral corruption as easily as anyone else.  The deeply felt anti-semitism of the dominant modernists would be one example, and the genteel and not so genteel racism of the Southern Agrarians would be another.  When Adorno said that there was no poetry after Auschwitz, he was only partly suggesting that the crimes of the 20th century were beyond the redemption of literature;  he also meant more broadly that the dream that literature and culture could save us was itself a symptom of our illness, not a solution to it.  Delbanco might be too subject to this particular dream, I think.

Secondly, I think that this analysis runs close to blaming college students for not majoring in or studying more in the humanities and is a little bit akin to blaming the victim–these young people have inherited the world we’ve given them, and we would do well to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask what kind of culture we’ve put in place that would make the frantic pursuit of economic gain in the putative name of economic security a sine qua non in the moral and imaginative lives of our children.

That having been said.  Yes, I do think the world–including the world of Wall Street–would be better if students took the time to read Billy Budd or Beloved, wedging it in somewhere between the work study jobs, appointments with debt counselors, and multiple extracurriculars and leadership conferences that are now a prerequisite for a job after college.

What does an education for democracy look like?

I’ve been reading a good bit lately about the importance of education for democracy, most recently via the new Patheos post from my colleague John Fea.  As is often the case, John roots his analysis of our current state of affairs in its comparison to the vision of the founding fathers in the early republic.  Broadly speaking, the narrative John sketches is that we have moved from an education for democracy to an education for utility (or for jobs).   Our contemporary discourse is focused almost exclusively on the purposes of education in procuring paying jobs for individuals and securing economic health for the nation.  Of this current state of affairs, John notes the following:

But is the kind of training necessary for a service-oriented capitalist economy to function the same kind of training necessary for a democracy to flourish? It would seem that the study of history, literature, philosophy, chemistry, politics, anthropology, biology, religion, rhetoric, and economics is essential for producing the kind of informed citizen necessary for a democracy to thrive. Democracy requires what the late Christopher Lasch called “the lost art of argument”—the ability to engage unfamiliar ideas and enter “imaginatively into our opponent’s arguments, if only for the purpose of refuting them.” The liberal arts teach this kind of civil dialogue. The founders knew what they were talking about.

Some of what John is saying is echoed in Andrew Delbanco’s book, which I discussed a couple of days ago and have made my way through a bit further.  The virtue of Delbanco’s book is to push John’s analysis even further in to the past, noting the high value that the Puritans put on education as a means of developing the whole person.  In other words, the writers of the early republic had inherited what was essentially a religious ideal.  We seek education fundamentally out of an ethical commitment to others and out of a religious commitment to a higher calling.

despite its history of misuse and abuse, there is something worth conserving in the claim, as Newman put it, that education “implies an action upon our mental nature, and the formation of a character.” 18 College, more than brain-training for this or that functional task, should be concerned with character— the attenuated modern word for what the founders of our first colleges would have called soul or heart. Although we may no longer agree on the attributes of virtue as codified in biblical commandments or, for that matter, in Enlightenment precepts (Jefferson thought the aim of education was to produce citizens capable of “temperate liberty”), students still come to college not yet fully formed as social beings, and may still be deterred from sheer self-interest toward a life of enlarged sympathy and civic responsibility.

Delbanco, Andrew (2012-03-22). College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be (Kindle Locations 733-739). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

Delbanco argues that the uniquely American insight about a college education–a gift as unique and perhaps more important than jazz or Hollywood–is that this ideal of a transformative education is not limited to an elite but should in principle be available to all.  This is why the American system of general education at the tertiary level is nearly unique in the modern world.

The question, however, is whether this ideal has ever been realized in practice.  The answer is obviously no.  College attendance was in fact very limited until very recently, and the kind of education Jefferson and others imagined was primarily achieved through other means than a college education in the populace as a whole–in what we would now call high school or even earlier since even compulsory high school was a post-republican ideal.  Ironically, the very intense conflicts in the United States over the value of college and whether or not college should focus on liberal learning or professional preparation is precisely a consequence of the efforts toward its democratization.  The conflict between “practical” education for the masses and liberal education for the elite is a very long an old argument, one that has animated discussions about education throughout the twentieth century.  Think of the conflict between DuBois and Booker T. Washington  over what kind of education was most likely to secure freedom for the average AFrican American.

The more democratic that American education has become, the more the questions about what exactly we are preparing the average student for has been driven home. This is why both a liberal President like Barak Obama and conservative CEOs agree that what’s most important is education for a job.  Those of us in the liberal arts like John Fea and I disagree.  We show ourselves to be participants in a very old and long standing debate in American education, one as yet unresolved though proponents of a liberal education have been knocked to the mat pretty often lately.