Musings on the Purpose of Higher Education

While summer reading is normally light or frothy stuff for the beach, one of the more widely reviewed books of this past summer, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to A Meaningful Life, was nothing of the sort.

Excellent Sheep calls the question on the current approach to educating students at America's most elite institutions (e.g., Harvard, Yale and Stanford).

It was written by William Deresiewicz, a former Yale professor who was denied tenure. His argument is essentially that the elite institutions are turning out robotic strivers purely focused on grades and careers rather than assisting students in the process of personal "soul making" and self-discovery.

We are not in a position to comment on the validity of Deresiewicz's assessment and assertions regarding these institutions. We can state unequivocally that his work evoked much debate and discussion and caused us to reflect on the purpose of higher education.

Most of the book reviews we read felt that Deresiewicz made some solid points but substantially overstated his case. As might be expected, there was disagreement with Deresiewicz from the academic community as well -- although not necessarily agreement among themselves.

For example, Ben Barres, professor of neurobiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine observed that the "anecdotal accounts" in Excellent Sheep "do not jibe with my 20 years of experience on the faculty of Stanford University, where the majority of undergrads are happy, passionate and thriving." Barres went further to declare, "These amazingly talented and diverse students are working side by side with our faculty to reinvent the world."

In contrast, Stephen Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard, did not see his role nor that of his students in such a proactive or collaborative light. He wrote, "Perhaps I am emblematic of everything that is wrong with elite American education, but I have no idea how to get my students to build a self or become a soul."

According to David Brooks, "Pinker suggests the university's job is cognitive. Young people should know how to write clearly and reason statistically. They should acquire specific knowledge: the history of the planet, how the body works, how cultures differ, etc."

Brooks draws upon the work of Deresiewicz and the words of Pinker to define three broad categories of purpose for higher education: cognitive purpose; career purpose; and moral purpose.

There are numerous other specific purposes and sub-purposes for higher education and distinct purposes depending on the type of institution. We believe, however, that as a general frame of reference for examining the role and responsibilities of higher education Brooks is a useful one.

Viewing things more from a student perspective as opposed to an institutional one, we prefer to call these three categories:

  • learning purpose
  • earning purpose
  • turning purpose.

The first institutions of higher education in the United States were ones that served either a turning purpose being established to prepare individuals for the ministry or ones that served a learning purpose being established as sort of "intellectual finishing schools" for the landed gentry.

The move toward an earning purpose for higher education and education for the masses was prompted by passage of the Morrill Act in 1862. The Morrill Act established land grant universities which were to be focused on teaching agriculture, military tactics and engineering.

In spite of these differences in purpose, for centuries the academics were clearly in charge and control in the university setting. What mattered there was what Robert A. Nisbet, a sociologist and vice-chancellor for the University of California system labeled "the academic dogma."

As Nathan Heller observes in his New Yorker article, "Poison Ivy," The academic dogma emphasized that knowledge was important -- not applied knowledge or useful knowledge, just knowledge.

After 1945 with the passage of the GI Bill and the influx of large amounts of money into the higher educational system, things changed. As Heller reports, Nisbet described that shift as follows, "Overnight, first in the natural sciences, then in the social sciences, and finally -- here and there, at least -- in the humanities, the academic scene was bestridden by that modern incarnation of Caesar, the academic capitalist, the professorial entrepreneur, the new man of power!"

Since that time, the supremacy of the higher education "establishment" has been questioned almost continuously. The challenges have ranged from the student protests of the late sixties, to the calls for more student or customer-centered programming in the nineties, to the most recent demands for better value and relevance in education given the explosive costs of higher education and diminishing public financial support.

The issue becomes what should be the purpose of higher education? Or, more appropriately, should there be a single purpose?

In our opinion, the general purposes of higher education that we have discussed to this point - learning, earning and turning -- are not mutually exclusive. An institution could emphasize only one purpose or embrace all three.

The essential requirements should be for the institution to align its curriculum to its purpose(s) and to communicate its mission clearly. This will enable a prospective student to make an informed decision on where to go to school based upon an institution's espoused intent.

This is essential because students come in all shapes and sizes: Some are interested in learning. Some in earning. Some in turning. Some in all three forms. Others are uncertain.

There is absolutely no single route that is or should applicable to all students. As Felicia Nimue Ackerman, a professor of philosophy at Brown University, puts it, "...some university graduates find careers in finance just as engrossing, stimulating and fulfilling as their teachers find careers in philosophy and literature."

The exercise of student choice acknowledges this. It brings into play a fourth category of purpose for higher education. That is fulfilling the educational "yearning" or desire of the student. The yearning purpose should be the key driver for the type of education that a student pursues.

Unfortunately, the "personally correct" pursuit of an education is no guarantee of results upon graduation.

We will address the current nature of things with regard to degrees and outcomes in a future blog. In the remainder of this blog on the purpose of higher education, let us introduce our personal bias.

In the 21st century, we live in a world that is environmentally, economically and ethically challenged. We believe that higher education and those with higher education can play a special role in addressing those challenges if they adapt a problem-solving purpose both as institutions and individuals.

There are numerous universities that have already moved beyond the halls of ivy and onto the playing fields. One such institution that Frank Islam is knowledgeable about because of his personal involvement is Western University in London, Canada.

President Amit Chakma of Western was recently named as one of the three recipients of the prestigious Michael P. Malone International Leadership Awards. In accepting the award, President Chakma said, "Expanding the impact of our teaching and research on the international stage is an institutional priority at Western University that's highlighted in our mission to develop global citizens whose education and leadership serves the public good."

Moving from the institutional to the individual, in 2010, Harvard Professor Clayton Christenson published an article in the Harvard Business Review titled, "How Will You Measure Your Life."

Near the end of the article, Professor Christensen writes, "I've concluded that the metric by which God will assess my life isn't dollars but the individual people whose lives I've touched." Christensen then provides the following advice which he gives to his students at the end of every semester, "Don't worry about the individual prominence you've achieved, worry about the individuals you have helped become better people."

In conclusion, looking forward to the future from this second troubled decade of the 21st century, taking all of this into account, there is a new message and an additional statement of purpose for institutions of higher education and those with higher education degrees who will listen. It is: Become and Be Excellent Shepherds not Excellent Sheep