Has higher education lost its way?

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Perhaps you read a recent article in the newsletter of renowned linguist John McWhorter titled “College became the default. let’s rethink this.” A true public intellectualMcWhorter is a progressive maverick and intellectual provocateur who writes for the public in ordinary language and whose opinions are totally unpredictable.

Like an outpouring of letters to Time makes it clear that his views do not conform to the current progressive orthodoxy that young people need four more years of education after high school. He strongly supports the argument made by Bard College President Leon Botstein in his 1997 collection of essays, Jefferson’s childrenthat the American education system needs a radical overhaul.

Botstein’s book made a host of provocative arguments:

Botstein, of course, was not one to simply express opinions dogmatically. His early secondary schools and Bard College in Simon’s Rock, which McWhorter attended, sought to put his educational philosophy into practice, and a growing number of secondary schools across the country adopted some of his ideas, offering many more optional and early schools. Classes.

Although much critical attention has been given to Botstein’s call to radically redesign high school and let students out in 10and year, he also had some interesting things to say about the university: that “college should be something some kids choose out of personal preference(in McWhorter’s words), not the default destination it has become.

Shouldn’t there be other avenues, asks McWhorter, for those who simply want a “piece of paper” a “good job”? Shouldn’t there be other ways to produce “a society of well-educated people”?

McWhorter concedes that vision is a “chimera,” but argues that this thought experiment might inspire others to reflect on the realities of the college today, an institution where rigor is on the decline, where the liberal arts has been reduced to a hodgepodge of requirements. , where learning is indeterminate, and where professionalism and pre-professionalism predominate,

Not surprisingly, most letters writing in response to McWhorter’s reflections expressed bewilderment and disappointment: “Puzzled by his assumption that so many students are biding their time until they get this ‘piece of paper’ so they can get jobs . Disappointed with his cheerleading for a less educated America.

Some letter writers accuse McWhorter of “dissing” the university and respond by asserting that the university should be universal. As one writer put it, “Learning to think critically about health and politics and having empathy for other cultures is important for everyone.”

As one commentator observes, much of the value of college lies outside of its major: “I’ve had all kinds of academic experiences only diagonally; bound to prepare me for this life. I learned to speak fairly good French and a minimum of Spanish. I discovered Gauvain and heroic verses. I learned that I liked botany and anthropology. My mind exploded with existentialism and dramatic irony.

Certainly, some respondents agreed with aspects of McWhorter’s arguments: that vocational and technical education should be more valued and more widely available, and that there must be shorter, cheaper options.

But others vehemently disagree. One commentator notes that during the 1940s the University of Chicago Laboratory School made students graduate with a high school diploma at the end of 10and note – only later to revert to a 12and Course of Study.

Many agree with Howard Gardner of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education: One of the biggest problems with the university is that too many students arrive without understanding what higher education has to offer and are not taking advantage of it. the many opportunities it offers. Colleges, in turn, must do more “to ensure that every enrolled student can explore new areas and graduate better equipped to meet professional, civic, and personal responsibilities.”

Interestingly, Gardner and co-author Wendy Fischman recently published The real world of the university: what is higher education and what can it be?who in some ways shares McWhorter’s belief that there is an urgent need to rethink the American education system.

This book argues that “higher education in the United States has lost its way,” that it suffers from “mission sprawl,” and that it needs to focus more strongly on its fundamental educational mission: to increase “the capital of higher education” – to help students think well and broadly, express themselves clearly, explore new areas and be open to possible transformations”, combat students’ egocentrism and cultivate “a community of learners open to change as thinkers, citizens and human beings”.

Based on in-depth interviews with more than 2,000 students, alumni, faculty, administrators, parents, and administrators from 10 colleges and universities conducted between 2013 and 2018, the authors document the number of students struggling with health issues stress, time management, and a lack of connection and which focus narrowly on grades, workload, return on investment, and career success, rather than intellectual growth, learning, and development staff.

According to Fischman and Gardner, undergraduates enter college with four different mental models: “inertial” (college as the inevitable next step), “transactional” (college as a prerequisite for middle-class status ), “exploratory” (to learn new things), and “transformational”. In the minds of the authors, it is the transformational ideal that is most important, but it is the perspective that has the least traction. The transformational goal is to develop a student who will “reflect and challenge their own values ​​and beliefs, with expectation . . . that can be fundamentally changed.

One of the reviews of their book, Frederick Hessdirector of educational policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and editor of Education Nextargues that the book offers a “lack of evidence” to show that students with an exploratory or transformational mindset “learned more, studied more, thought more, enjoyed their time more, or did more to advance their post-graduate perspectives.” -academics” than those with an “inertial” or “transactional” mentality.

However, Hess views many of their curriculum and policy suggestions positively – improving student integration (to better align students with their college’s mission), integrating civics, ethics, or work into the student experience (what the authors call “intertwining”), curb curriculum sprawl, strengthen mental health supports, and institute higher-impact educational practices. He nevertheless expresses reservations about some of their other proposals: minimizing intercollegiate and extracurricular athletics, and reducing the number of research centers.

It’s all too easy to dismiss various thought experiments, like McWhorter’s, as wishful thinking, as little more than building castles in the air. But so many ideas of Leon Botstein, which struck many as daydreams that could not evolve, were, in fact, incorporated partially and incompletely, of course, but to some extent, into the existing. Practically, the ideas that Fischman and Gardner advance about reaffirming a commitment to a more exploratory and transformational conception of the college experience are notions that I, for one, hope will gain traction.

Steven Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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