Higher education – the biggest conflict – ideational and aspirational

Getting back into blogging after a couple of weeks thinking and writing.  I attended a higher education leadership conference this week (will keep the name and place nonpublic) and have been thinking a great deal about higher education and my place in it.

After reading Chancellor Dirks view http://news.berkeley.edu/2014/01/29/the-true-value-of-higher-ed/ and trying to listen to Liz Coleman’s Ted Talk http://www.ted.com/talks/liz_coleman_s_call_to_reinvent_liberal_arts_education and attending a conference on higher educational leadership, I have been reflecting, or cogitating as I used to call it, on higher education’s purpose, problems, and future.  Actually, I was doing so before the last few days, but I find some time to write about it with a long weekend.  I do live in a better-than-average place to comment on these questions, since I have a doctorate, have taught in college for 36 years, and work as a college administrator.

It seems that there are three basic views: 
1.     Higher education should be responsive to the free market and the needs of potential students to be economically upwardly mobile, and as such continue its slow evolution toward this goal, one it has either intentionally or unintentionally been pursuing for quite some time.  This means greater access, emphasis on return on investment, innovation to cut costs through alternative delivery systems.
2.     Higher education should keep its traditional goals of educating the capable young people for leadership through an emphasis on the traditional liberal arts and sciences but update approaches to these subjects; higher education should cast a wary eye toward too many calls for short-term adaptation just to deal with any short-term problems in higher education we seem to have.  A long-term view (backward and forward) will provide the best foundation for educating those who will approach societal problems.
3.     Higher education should totally transform itself to solve societal problems of climate change, poverty, diversity and exclusion, and war.

#1 is what I have been most exposed to in recent conferences about reimagining college because of (a) rising costs, (b) questions about the monetary value of college, and (c) pressure from governments, accreditors, new learning methodologies and technologies, and the business world.  I recognize the value in it but find it short-sighted.

#2 is what I read in Chancellor Dirks’ essay, or at least my interpretation of it. As someone in the liberal arts, I lean toward this one, except it doesn’t seem to take into account economic realities of the huge sector of the population who want to pursue higher education to improve themselves economically and socially.  He at least gives space to the idea that faith, religion, and spirituality have “skin in the game” here.

(In the ‘70s, when cults were becoming more prevalent at least in the public perception, someone said that the appeal of these groups was partly due to the failure of parents to raise their children with strong spiritual foundations of their own, ones based in the long-held traditions of their faith.  There is also the view that the rise of “fundamentalism” of the radical kind may be due to secularization.  Elites can dismiss faith-based institutions, but to me that only shows their own egocentric arrogance, as seen in the last view).

#3 is essentially leftist utopianism.  The mandate to higher education is to redefine the curriculum so that students will be ready to address social problems—and I think this is important—in a way that we elites say they should be addressed.  In this case, then, any talk of critical thinking and creative problem-solving is moot, because the goal is to achieve that vision of government or state-run healthcare, education, and economic efforts, but not to find another vision. 

Needless to say, I found the Bennington President’s message abstract, somewhat incomprehensible, and to the extent I did grasp it, untenable.  Lots of commenters on the Ted Talk posted how overcome with emotion they were by the talk, which got me to thinking about my own propensity to be impressed with something an intellectual says before truly digging through it. 

Perhaps the value of higher education is its institutional diversity, even if that is largely stratified into the Carnegie classification system.  Bryan College is accredited by the same organization that accredits the University of Georgia, but they have little in common in any way, except that they are “post secondary,” “higher education” and as such the students can get Pell Grants and loans to study at both. 


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