Crowdsourcing My Seminar on The Crisis of Legitimacy in Higher Education

CampusI’ve foolishly agreed to take on a teaching assignment in the spring semester, but am thrilled at the prospect of teaching a senior honors seminar to our honors program students here at Messiah College. The course is titled: “College, what is it good for?:  Messiah College and the Crisis of Legitimacy in Higher Education.”

I’ve decided to stick my pinkie toe in the crowdsourcing waters just to see what students, faculty, and administrators might make of the course or do with it if they had their way.  So I’d be very interested in any readers of this now nearly moribund blog taking a crack at the course google doc that you can connect with here.  (I’m so uncertain as to what I’m doing that you should please leave me a comment if you find it impossible to get to my google doc).  I’m not going entirely commando with the crowdsourcing idea, sin I’ve obviously created a moderately fleshed out skeleton on the google.doc that I think I would like to pursue.

On the other hand, I’m interested in how students in the course, professors, other administrators, persons outside the academy, might view such a course.  What issues would be taken up, what readings would be required, what case studies should we consider, what assignments would really work??  Etcetera etcetera.  I’m especially interested in ideas about how to make the “gamification” part of the class work effectively.  So I’m open to anything, retaining the right pick and choose what I think are the best ideas to form the course in the end.

The basic description of the course is as follows, with the longer version of my vision of the course available on the google doc.

Students in this class will have an opportunity to reflect on their education at Messiah College in the broader context of higher education as it exists in the United States today.  Especially, we will examine the widespread doubts and concerns about higher education in the United States.  In the United States, social discourse no longer takes a college education to be an obvious and unquestioned social good.  Critics contend that college costs too much, contributes to inequality, relies on old-fashioned technology, does not guarantee students good jobs, undermines patriotism (or religious faith) and in the end does not teach students very much.  Several central questions will focus our seminar, including but not limited to the following:

  • What is the purpose of a college education?
  • How is college represented in American culture, and why?
  • Does a college education contribute to inequality in the United States?
  • Why does a college education cost so much?
  • Do new forms of information technology and educational delivery signal the end of the traditional residential liberal arts college?
  • Do Christian Colleges have unique answers to the problems facing higher education?
  • How does or should Messiah College respond effectively to the crisis of legitimacy in higher education?

If you don’t have any time for a google doc and would just like to leave some suggestions in the comments to the post, that’s great too.

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]

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.

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.

Andrew Delbanco–What are the virtues of a college education?

I’ve begun reading Andrew Delbanco’s latest book, College, What It Was, Is, and Should Be, impressed by an essay in the Chronicle Review derived from the book.  I’ve only made my way through the first chapter, but there are a several things to note immediately.

First, Delbanco dances a little bit with question of what college was. He  shows how all of our current debates and lamentations about college life–students are too often debauched, professors teach too little and too poorly, and the college curriculum isn’t focused well enough on getting students jobs–are all of very long-standing, common to our public discourse as equally in 1776 as in 1976 and on to today.  At the same time he shows how in some very real ways colleges have already abandoned and are ever more quickly fleeing from ideals that they once embodied, however imperfectly.

For Delbanco, the genius of college–as opposed to the professionally oriented university–is primarily to be found in an ethical imperative rather than an economic motive.  It’s main value is to establish a kind of personhood that is necessary for citizenship.  It’s qualities include the following:

1. A skeptical discontent with the present, informed by a sense of the past.

2. The ability to make connections among seemingly disparate phenomena.

3. Appreciation of the natural world, enhanced by knowledge of science and the arts.

4. A willingness to imagine experience from perspectives other than one’s own.

5. A sense of ethical responsibility.

These habits of thought and feeling are hard to attain and harder to sustain. They cannot be derived from exclusive study of the humanities, the natural sciences, or the social sciences, and they cannot be fully developed solely by academic study, no matter how well “distributed” or “rounded.” It is absurd to imagine them as commodities to be purchased by and delivered to student consumers. Ultimately they make themselves known not in grades or examinations but in the way we live our lives.

Delbanco, Andrew (2012-03-22). College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be (Kindle Locations 138-148). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

For Delbanco, these qualities are essential to the functioning of a healthy democracy.  He puts this most succinctly and eloquently, I thought, in his adaptation for the Chronicle Review, referencing Matthew Arnold and saying, “Knowledge of the past, in other words, helps citizens develop the capacity to think critically about the present–an indispensable attribute of a healthy democracy.”  Amen and a mane.

The problem, and Delbanco is, of course, aware of it, is that what college is, and is fast exclusively becoming, is a commodity that is purchased by and delivered to student customers.  The economic metaphors for college life are triumphant, and no more clearly so than in our discourse about whether a college education is “worth it.”  The question of whether a college education is “worth it” is posed and answered these days in almost exclusively monetary terms.  How much does it cost, and how much will you get for the investment?

Over and against this rather ruthless bottom line, Delbanco’s descriptions seem noble, but I’m a little afraid that it is so much tilting at windmills (I reserve judgement until I’ve actually finished the book).  Only today I was discussing these matters with several of my faculty who are going to be attending the conference at Wake Forest, Rethinking Success:  From the liberal arts to careers in the 21st century.  Our career development director described to me parents who come to her asking for job statistics for their children as they chose between our small Christian college and other more well-known universities.  The fundamental decisions are not related so much to the the quality of education we could provide, not the kind of transformative potential that her child might realize in an environment at Messiah College devoted to the development and integration of an intellectual, spiritual and ethical life, but whether in fact our graduates get jobs as readily and whether those jobs pay as much as her child’s other options.  The difficulty for a College less well known than the Ivies Delbanco focuses on, is to find a rhetoric and an educational program that holds up the flame of the education Delbanco imagines, while also speaking frankly and less idealistically to the ways in which that education can pay off in material ways.

It’s not that these are poor questions for parents to be asking;  its just that these questions are unrelated to the kinds of things Delbanco is saying College is for and that many of us have believed that it is for.  Delbanco, of course, is trying to intervene in useful way to alter the national discourse about what college ought to be about.  Without a shift in that discourse, its impossible to imagine College being for what Delbanco says it should be for, except somewhere in the hidden and secret recesses of the academic heart.

Giving students what they want whether they want it or not

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported that one study shows that in some cases e-textbooks are saving students the grand total of one greenback per course. Figuring in the costs of hardware, tech support, infrastructure, and etcetera that are adding immensely to the cost of tuition anyway—not to mention the disappearance of a secondary market where they can resell their textbooks–I really wonder whether, so far, e-textbooks might not be costing students money in the short run. Until there is a much larger economy of scale I suspect that cost savings will remain negligible. Even then, it’s not clear. Though general consumption of e-books has skyrocketed in relative terms over the past couple of years, the cost of e-books has actually crept upward such that the difference between the cost of an e-book and the cost of a paperback on Amazon is small, and clearly costs more than a good used paperback available easily through Amazon’s resellers or through good used bookstores like my favorite, Midtown Scholar here in Harrisburg.

In some ways I’m even more interested in the practical and usability costs that students are experiencing. According to the Chronicle, many students struggled to know how to use the technology effectively and lacked the basic computing skills necessary. Professors were called upon to be IT instructors. This flies in the face of our ideological conviction that young people naturally adapt to technology in a way their professors do not. I don’t have a grasp of the details here, but it surely seems that some professors are being required to spend time away from their disciplines in order to get students up to speed on how to use the technology.

The electronic rental model caused a few other headaches for students and professors at the college, according to the study. Some students struggled to use the e-textbooks, thanks to disparities in basic computing skills. Those problems led some professors to spend class time conducting their own in-class tutorials, and even afterward a few said it was unclear who should be providing continuing technical instruction—faculty, campus IT staff, or representatives from the publishers.

And, of course, predictably, there are massive infrastructure issues involved with swift changes to e-books as the basic tool of the university.

Even students who adapted to the technology quickly sometimes struggled to open up the digital course materials during lectures. Wireless networks in classrooms where several students were using e-textbooks at once sometimes became overwhelmed, making access to publishers’ sites inconsistent.

I should probably say that this is not a screed against technology or e-books. I do almost all my own occasional reading on my iPad, and I do read e-books, though I continue to prefer the old codex for anything over about 20 pages long. I do think, though, that we ought to proceed cautiously with the notion that technology is the salvation for better learning at a lower cost. Once we add in the infrastructure necessary to make sure students can use the technology effectively—hardware, software, sufficient bandwidth, tech support and training for students and teachers on a permanent and consistent basis (really 24 hours a day given the way education is heading)–its unclear that students will have really saved anything, because to be sure it will be the students or their parents who are paying for it.

I think, to be frank, that there is a certain inevitability about this transformation to which we will all have to adapt and are already adapting. But we really ought to justify that transformation on the basis of whether students are learning more or not rather than on costs savings that I don’t think are really happening. I just think we need to get clearer on the advantages or e-books to students learning, if they are there, before we give students even more of what they want whether they want it or not.

We’re all pre-professional now

I’ve been catching up this evening on backlog of reading I’ve stored on Instapaper.  (I’m thinking “backlog” might be the right word:  I don’t think you can have a “stack” on an iPad).  A few weeks back Cathy Davidson down at Duke University had an interesting piece on whether College is for everyone.  Davidson’s basic thesis, as the title suggests, is no.  Despite the nationalist rhetoric that attends our discussions of higher education–we will be a stronger America if every Tom Dick and Henrietta has a four year degree–maybe, Davidson suggests, maybe we’d have a better society if we attended to and nurtured the multiple intelligences and creativities that abound in our society, and recognized that many of those were best nurtured somewhere else than in a college or university:

The world of work — the world we live in — is so much more complex than the quite narrow scope of learning measured and tested by college entrance exams and in college courses. There are so many viable and important and skilled professions that cannot be outsourced to either an exploitative Third World sweatshop or a computer, that require face-to-face presence, and a bucketload of skills – but that do not require a college education: the full range of IT workers, web designers, body workers (such as deep tissue massage), yoga and Pilates instructors, fitness educators, hairdressers, retail workers, food industry professionals, entertainers and entertainment industry professionals, construction workers, dancers, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, landscapers, nannies, elder-care professionals, nurse’s aides, dog trainers, cosmetologists, athletes, sales people, fashion designers, novelists, poets, furniture makers, auto mechanics, and on and on.

All those jobs require specialized knowledge and intelligence, but most people who end up in those jobs have had to fight for the special form their intelligence takes because, throughout their lives, they have seen never seen their particular ability and skill set represented as a discipline, rewarded with grades, put into a textbook, or tested on an end-of-grade exam. They have had to fight for their identity and dignity, their self-worth and the importance of their particular genius in the world, against a highly structured system that makes knowledge into a hierarchy with creativity, imagination, and the array of so-called “manual skills” not just at the bottom but absent.

Moreover, Davidson argues that not only is our current educational system not recognizing and valuing these kinds of skills on the front end, when we actually get students in to college we narrow students interests yet further:

All of the multiple ways that we learn in the world, all the multiple forms of knowing we require in order to succeed in a life of work, is boiled down to an essential hierarchical subject matter tested in a way to get one past the entrance requirements and into a college. Actually, I agree with Ken Robinson that, if we are going to be really candid, we have to admit that it’s actually more narrow even than that: we’re really, implicitly training students to be college professors. That is our tacit criterion for “brilliance.” For, once you obtain the grail of admission to higher ed, you are then disciplined (put into majors and minors) and graded as if the only end of your college work were to go on to graduate school where the end is to prepare you for a profession, with university teaching of the field at the pinnacle of that profession.

Which brings me to my title.  We’re all pre-professional now.  Since the advent of the university if not before there’s been a partisan debate between growing pre-professional programs and what are defined as the “traditional liberal arts,”  though in current practice given the cache of  science programs in the world of work this argument is sometimes really between humanities and the rest of the world.

Nevertheless, I think Davidson points out that in actual practice of the humanities in many departments around the country, this distinction is specious.  Many humanities programs conceive of themselves as preparing students for grad school.  In the humanities.  In other words, we imagine ourselves as ideally preparing students who are future professionals in our profession.  These are the students who receive our attention, the students we hold up as models, the students we teach to, and the students for whom we construct our curricula, offer our honors and save our best imaginations.  What is this, if not a description of a pre-professional program?  So captive are we to this conceptual structure that it becomes hard to imagine what it would mean to form an English major, History major, or Philosophy major whose primary implicit or explicit goal was not to reproduce itself, but to produce individuals who will work in the world of business–which most of them will do–or in non-profit organizations, or in churches and synagogues, or somewhere else that we cannot even begin to imagine.  We get around this with a lot of talk with transferable skills, but we actually don’t do a great deal to help our students understand what those skills are or what they might transfer to.  So I think Davidson is right to point this out and to suggest that there’s something wrongheaded going on.

That having been said, a couple of points of critique:

Davidson rightly notes these multiple intelligences and creativities, and she rightly notes that we have a drastically limited conception of society if we imagine a four year degree is the only way to develop these intelligences and creativities in an effective fashion.  But Davidson remains silent on the other roles of higher education, the forming of an informed citizenry being only one.  Some other things I’ve seen from Davidson, including her new book Now You See It, suggests she’s extremely excited about all the informal ways that students are educating themselves, and seems to doubt the traditional roles of higher education;  higher education’s traditional role as a producer and disseminator of knowledge has been drastically undermined.  I have my doubts.  It is unclear that a couple of decades of the internet have actually produced a more informed citizenry.  Oh, yes, informed in all kinds of ways about all kinds of stuff, like the four thousand sexual positions in the Kama Sutra, but informed in a way that allows for effective participation in the body politic?  I’m not so sure.

I think this is so because to be informed is not simply to possess information, but to be shaped, to be in-formed.  In higher education this means receiving a context for how to receive and understand information, tools for analysing, evaluating, and using information,  the means for creating new knowledge for oneself.  To be sure, the institutions of higher education are not the only place that this happens, but it is clear that this doesn’t just automatically happen willy-nilly just because people have a Fios connection.

What higher education can and should give, then, is a lot of the values and abilities that are associated with a liberal arts education traditionally conceived–as opposed to being conceived as a route to a professorship–and these are values, indeed, that everyone should possess.  Whether it requires everyone to have a four year degree is an open question.  It may be that we need to rethink our secondary educational programs in such a way that they inculcate liberal arts learning in a much more rigorous and effective way than they do now.  But I still doubt that the kind of learning I’m talking about can be achieved simply by 17 year olds in transformed high schools.  Higher education should be a place for the maturing and transformation of young minds toward a larger understanding of the world and their responsibilities to it, which it sometimes is today, but should be more often.