Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Chief End of Higher Education: II

My wife and I were listening to NPR yesterday morning and heard a report concerning the practice of some colleges and universities charging increased tuition for certain majors. The idea is, apparently, that college education is worth more for engineering students, let's say, than for history or classics majors. How, do you suppose, such a "worth" is calculated? The answer shows us just how our higher educational institutions evaluate the "product" they provide.

Sadly, the answer is not surprising. The idea is that engineering students are deemed to gain more from their having a BS in their field... but that gain is calculated in dollars and cents - and this is the problem. If the worth of a college degree is determined by the average salary of outgoing graduates, there's a major problem (no pun intended).

As noted in my last post, the aims of education ought to be to equip students to pursue and attain intellectual maturity, and to begin (one doesn't ever *end*) down the path to wisdom (and from a Christian perspective, the aim of a student ought to be such wisdom as gives glory and honor to God our Father and to the Lord Jesus Christ). Today's education doesn't aim there - typically one might hear the aim to be "to get a better job", "to qualify for X, Y or Z", or even "to get my MRS", though this last one is relatively infrequently spoken in polite company. Education, whether one speaks of higher ed, or elementary & secondary, is rarely put in terms of gaining wisdom and training the intellect in a way consistent with sound moral principles. Kirk, in his essay "The Revitalized College", writes:

My thesis is this: a principal achievement of liberal education in America has been the imparting of a sense of moral worth among those who lead intellectually. This apprehension of moral worth, as taught by the liberal disciplines, has been losing ground, throughout the present century, to what Newman called the "Knowledge School" - that is, to utilitarian and pragmatic theories and practices, which tend to regard moral worth (so far as they regard it at all) as merely the product of private rationality and social utility. Success, increasingly, has been substituted for virtue in our curricula; facts, for wisdom; social adjustment, for strength of soul. What, in certain books of mine, I have called "defecated rationality" (that is, the petty bank and captial of private rationality, as distinguished from the wisdom of our ancestors, religion, custom, convention, reverence and honor) nowadays is generally considered the brightest gem in a scholar's crown. And if this latter-day view of the ends of education is carried to its logical conclusion, we must efface the principle which for three centuries has breathed life into the unwieldy bulk of our system of higher education. (Russell Kirk, "The Revitalized College: A Model", in "Education in a Free Society", Liberty Fund, Inc., 1973, pp. 138-139)
Now Kirk likely puts more faith and trust in what I'd call "purely human wisdom" and convention than I would - but his objection to 'modern' or 'postmodern' ends of higher education still stands. We have lost any touch with historical purposes of education and pursuit of wisdom in this (and the last) century... education is a means to "higher productivity" and "better personal financial outcomes". It is no longer, in general, it seems, interested in teaching students to learn and giving them tools for the pursuit of true wisdom and maturity. The "extended adolescence" that college has become for many is accepted, and even celebrated, by some in our circles.

This isn't to say that all hope is lost... but I wonder how much of what characterizes our society today might stem from the fact that so many of our educational instiutions have moved from an aim of helping students pursue a virtuous wisdom and mature intellectual exercise and training to a "more practical" job-oriented focus? College is "for everybody" and is well nigh a "requirement" for job placement. Couple this with an overwhelming sense of moral relativism that our society trumpets as "virtue", and we have what we have today.



  1. It is a way that liberals can tax the rich..... No more complicated than that! Secular and theological liberals are getting crazier by the minute....

  2. I suppose when the student doesn't get a job paying the industry average, then it will be the student's fault. Then, we'll see lawsuits from students who having paid for the better education must not have received it - even if others received it, the university failed them, etc. There's nothing new under the sun... but MY how creative man is in his pursuits.