Colleges Must Ensure Quality Not Inequality

Recently, I had occasion to hear two voices calling for radical change in American education: Geoffrey Canada, whose Harlem Children's Zone has developed a new model for effective learning while providing significant opportunities for young people, and Mark C. Taylor, a professor of religion whose recent Crisis on Campus points out the need for radical change in higher education. Both men recognize how our educational system has evolved for many into economically and culturally destructive factories of failure.

Canada and Taylor emphasize the dysfunctionality of our elementary and secondary schools, but we might say that those systems are working to produce just what has been asked of them: increased economic inequality and cultural homogeneity. Through a good part of the 20th century, it wasn't that way, and education was seen as the ticket to economic mobility and cultural participation by an increasingly diverse population. Even though college was a world about which my parents knew very little, they were proud to send my brother and me to college because for them it represented access to opportunity. This wasn't only economic opportunity, but the chance to choose work, make friends, and participate in a community based on educated interests rather than just social and ethnic origins.

Today, many schools deprive students of those opportunities by failing to teach them basic skills and by isolating them from people from walks of life different from their own. The American education system functions to ensure that poor kids will have ever-reduced chances for changing their economic conditions. Wealthier students in more highly performing schools, by contrast, will be able to expand the social networks already available to them.

Poverty plagues many of our school districts, and underfinanced schools reinforce poverty. This undermines our democracy because people without opportunity will not be able to participate effectively as citizens. The dramatic growth of inequality over the last 40 years feeds on and reinforces the impoverishment of our public life. Geoffrey Canada's Harlem experiment, which aims to create an enriching environment of college-oriented students and supportive adults, does not have all the answers for our public-school system, but he has challenged us by asking why we allocate resources to reinforce social hierarchies rather than invest them in opportunities for all.

Our higher-education system is also functioning to re-inforce inequality, and this will increasingly be the case if we do not ensure that large public institutions provide well-rounded curricula rather than just tracking people to specific jobs at the lower end of the pay scale. In an age of seismic technological change and instantaneous information dissemination, it is more crucial than ever that we not abandon the humanistic foundations of education in favor of narrow, technical forms of teaching intended to give quick, utilitarian results. "Certification" and "completion" are no substitute for the practice of investigation, critique, and experience that enhances students' ability to appreciate and understand the world around them--and to innovatively respond to it. A broadly pragmatic liberal education, one that translates traditions of learning into contemporary contexts of inquiry, is our best hope of preparing all students to shape change and not just be victims of it.

Many selective colleges and universities have been able to fight against the reinforcement of inequality by maintaining robust financial-aid programs. But these are coming under severe economic pressure at all but the wealthiest institutions. Federal support for financial-aid students, especially in the form of Pell Grants, is absolutely essential if our universities are going to offer families of modest means the chance to provide their children with a high-quality education, one based in liberal learning that develops a flexible, pragmatic framework for creating opportunities, solving problems, and shaping our public culture. Access to quality higher education is a public good, and it requires public investment.

Still, many people have pointed out that higher education itself is beset by problems that undermine its ability to provide students with this flexible, pragmatic framework for lifelong learning. Take, for example, the powerful, long-term trends toward specialization in university culture, trends that have a decidedly negative impact on undergraduate education. Specialization has been the key to professional prestige in many academic departments. It is a sad state of affairs when the fact that people in the same department can't really understand one another is taken to be a sign of their sophistication. At many colleges, this has led to a fragmentation of intellectual life, with powerful departments defending their own interests without regard to the welfare of the institution as a whole. Who is going to articulate a vision for undergraduate education when only specialized success is awarded professional prestige?

Cultivation of specialization, powerful departments, and intellectual fragmentation are linked in an unholy alliance that undermines the potential for liberal learning today. While we want our students to learn the power of what is sometimes called "intellectual cross-training," many campuses create the conditions for increased isolation by offering reduced teaching as an incentive for research. Students may see a certain irony in the fact that reduced teaching responsibilities are among higher education's highest rewards for teachers.

There are some grounds for hope: There is a strong desire among faculty and students at many colleges to move from the intellectual silos of recent generations toward networks of learning that will be the hallmark of pragmatic and reflexive liberal learning in the future. Of course our students will still need to learn specific skills, like the study of languages and cultures, advanced statistics, and biophysics. While acquiring proficiency in those areas, they must learn to seek not narrower compartmentalization but opportunities for creative collaboration. Here at Wesleyan, for example, the interdisciplinary neuroscience-and-behavior program is the fastest-growing major, and our long-term commitment to understand music in its cultural, political, and historical contexts is more vital than ever.

Opportunities for creative collaboration are going to be essential if we are to transform our factories of failure into academies that promote learning, cultural participation, and opportunities for economic advancement. In a democracy, education that merits the term "higher" depends on challenging entrenched inequality; it depends on the hope for change. By promoting access to quality high schools that prepare students for college, we can cultivate that hope. By developing universities that overcome isolation and inspire innovation through great teaching, that hope can energize pragmatic liberal learning today.

Cross-posted from the Chronicle of Higher Education (