With such weighty words as access and affordability lingering in the air after President Obama's bus tour last month, it's easy to get caught up in the higher education mantra and its vagueness. The phrase paints visions of low unemployment rates and an educated workforce unconstrained by student debt. But access and affordability are not enough to get the world where it needs to be. For one, it becomes too easy to think we can solve the world's issues with quick degrees at a low cost, with less consideration for quality of the learning -- that is, the deep learning that comes from reflection, application, iteration and rigor.
We devolve into education as transaction; we might as well get the empty calories from a vending machine. Tomorrow's workforce raised on the educational equivalents of fast food, chips and candy bars. Is this how we will shake up education?
A better strategy is to lead our discussions with a global concern for the substance, purpose and outcomes of education -- without which, access does not matter. In contrast, UNESCO's new Education for All Global Monitoring Report Team analysis focuses on the need for quality education, highlighting the linkages between it and the reduction in mortality rates, increased tolerance for differences, and economic growth. How can we talk about access to higher education when worldwide UNESCO estimates that more than 250 million children still may not be able to read or write by the time they reach fourth grade? In our own country in particular, one in three public school fourth-graders taking the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test performed at or below the "Basic" level (NAEP).
A Values-Driven Education
In at least the richest nation in the world, literacy in our children cannot be optional, nor can we shrug aside issues of poverty, violence or discrimination in which education and the prospect of "having prospects" so clearly have a role. Embedded in education must be concern for the character of our citizens to combat this indifference, so we make the right and important choices as we care for our sick, teach our children, grow our food and lead our companies. Quality education is about far more than the 3 Rs and its liberal arts underpinnings that teach valuable skills like critical thinking and problem-solving. Education, at its best, is threaded with values -- those shared ideals that champion and protect what's important to us, and that elicit the finest within us. While values education may happen in the home or community, there is a critical role for schools and universities to play as we impart new knowledge -- and with it, provoke the discourse that instills personal and social responsibility. At Stetson University, our values are the foundation of all we do as we dare our students to live lives of significance. Our values are the expression of who we are and what we believe in; even before our students start classes, they are involved in community service programs. And our Bonner Scholars program is built around leadership experiences and long-term relationships with organizations in need. We are sixth on Washington Monthly's list of master's universities that contribute to the public good. Each September we immerse ourselves in Values Day, where we cancel classes and engage in a full slate of workshops for students, faculty and staff across our university. On Values Day especially, we embrace and espouse the values we've agreed on as a community: personal growth, global citizenship, intellectual development, and at the heart of them all, personal and social responsibility. We discuss the evolution of civic engagement, and why it matters, and what our Center for Community Engagement does and how it integrates our curriculum with our community. A session explores Mayan culture, examining their practices and beliefs, which challenges our assumptions and prompts us to look at our own culture with fresh eyes. The world is both a bit bigger and smaller the day after Values Day.
I do firmly suggest that education should lead to a job, but more importantly it should also lead to a life -- a personally satisfying life in a society we want to live in. Where all individuals and organizations -- as part of their mission and values -- devote time, energy and innovation to a cause or entity without even considering ROI, because the benefits are priceless and wide-reaching. I am well aware that this smacks of idealism, but that's a badge I am comfortable wearing. Access to a quality, affordable education interwoven with values takes us to this level and beyond ourselves -- beyond mere success and into a more meaningful realm: significance. Leadership expert John Maxwell advocates that you "can't have true success without significance; significance comes when you add value to others." Education can be a powerful change agent. In a world where human slavery still exists and clean water is not a universal right, we are in desperate need of reprioritization and a recommitment to values. Our values are, after all, our fallbacks as well as our guideposts, and what unites us in times of crisis when there is no logic or experience to show us the way. Surely measuring our students' random acts of kindness and the impact of civic engagement on our communities is just as important as quantifying the number of graduates we send out into the world and the salaries they make. A global, values-driven society -- that's the legacy I'm most interested in seeing education preserve.