Questioning the purpose of higher education. What if both sides are wrong?

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First an excerpt, and a suggestion that you go off to read this entire article and then come back to my post (which continues after the excerpt):

“If a university is not a place where intellectual curiosity is to be encouraged, and subsidized,” the editors wrote, “then it is nothing.”

The Times was giving voice to the ideal of liberal education, in which college is a vehicle for intellectual development, for cultivating a flexible mind, and, no matter the focus of study, for fostering a broad set of knowledge and skills whose value is not always immediately apparent.

Reagan was staking out a competing vision. Learning for learning’s sake might be nice, but the rest of us shouldn’t have to pay for it. A higher education should prepare students for jobs.

Those two theories had long existed in uneasy equilibrium. On that day in 1967, the balance started to tip toward utility in ways not even Reagan may have anticipated.

via The Day the Purpose of College Changed – Faculty – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The article continues with an interesting discussion of the forces deteriorating the value of the liberal arts over the past 40 years in the minds of policymakers, politicians, Americans, and even higher education professionals.

Citing Reagan’s speech in 1967 as the key turning point away from college-as-intellectual-development toward college-as-preparation-for-a-job, the author laments the decline and fall of the liberal education. Even the name “liberal education” is too much of an albatross these days, drawing ire from those who find anything “liberal” to be hogwash.

The question everyone’s asking seems to be, Is a liberal education even valuable anymore?  Or put a little more nicely, Can we make room for humanities majors in a higher education market driven by assessing outcomes, job performance, and economic results?

Wait a minute.

Aren’t both viewpoints (education as intellectual curiosity and education as job training) driven by selfish motives?

Both viewpoints reduce the human being to something less than fully human.

If you’re committed to the idea of college as a playground for intellectual curiosity, no matter how many great innovations sprang forth from the garages of college graduates in the 1970s (thank you, Steve Jobs & Steve Wozniak), your view of higher education reduces the learner to her intellect.  Sure, curiosity and problem solving and all that are quite important to many of us, but we are more than brains.  We are more than intellectuals.  We exist within a community and there are Great Big Questions about Life, the Universe, and Everything that intellectual pursuit cannot touch.

On the other hand, the current drive to turn college into a manufacturing plant of workers prepped for the economy is an even greater affront to humanity. I guess we aren’t content with turning K-12 schools into prisons factories; now we have to smash all of the exploration and innovation out of higher education as well.  We humans are more valuable than the sum total of our economic output.  I am more than my job.

What neither side in the liberal education vs pre-professional/vocational education argument seems to acknowledge is this:  A holistic education (which, to me, is the only one we should be aspiring toward, even if we can’t hit it yet) must be an education for the whole person to flourish as a human being first, as a human being who lives in relationship with other human beings.

A human being who lives within a community (the world, their hometown, a family, a church, etc) and for a purpose larger than himself.

I cannot escape the claims of the Gospel on my life or my learning.  I don’t go into a career just for ME; my work and the products of my work are valuable both to me and to the people around me whom I am commanded to love.

My work is ultimately for the Kingdom, not just to advance my own agenda (and truly, a rightly-aligned understanding of calling should reveal how my daily work fits into the larger picture of what God is doing through the Church to reconcile the world to Himself).

My education was not just for ME either, as the necessary corollary of the Great Commandments.  It’s not just exploring the humanities until I find myself, or taking the fast-track to a degree in something that would earn me a lot of money. (Clearly I chose poorly, if that was my goal.)  My life is bound up in a web of relationships with everyone around me, whom I am commanded to love.

Christian education institutions are uniquely poised to offer a third perspective on the purpose of education.

The question is, Are Christian educators too caught up in our own pursuit of intellectual prestige or ground down by the economic burden of doing education in a society completely driven by capitalist values to have much of a voice?

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