Purist or Pragmatist? Quick-and-Dirty Thoughts on Higher Education

Two articles I have read recently rev my mental engines on higher education.  Warning: a rant looms.

Like getting caught in a whirlpool, two major opinions go round and round in higher education:

1.  We’re losing the liberal arts and it is a terrible thing.

2.  A college degree is about getting a job and higher education officials need to wake up to this fact.

It’s pretty easy to see how these two opinions clash.  The “purists” (I come close to falling into this category, I suppose) argue that a college education never was about getting a job.  It has always been about becoming a whole and well-rounded person.  I know, it sounds so quaint and quixotic.  But there clearly is something to be said for this conviction.

The “pragmatists” complain about how expensive a bachelors degree has become and, unless that degree helps you get a good job, it’s not worth the time, expense and effort.  So, drop all the “soft” requirements and get to the really important stuff in the major that’s going to get me that job.

The following two articles have provoked my latest bout of indigestion.  The first one suggests that students who make the best grades don’t necessarily make the best workers.  The second highlights the “competency-based” turn in higher education.

www.worldcrunch.com/culture-society/who-says-top-students-make-the-best-employees-/job-hiring-grades-talent-deutsche-bahn/c3s12782/#!

http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/12/12/lumina-funded-group-seeks-lead-conversation-competency-based-education

I actually welcome both of these proposals, but at the same time, I feel like shouting, “Well duh!”  But that would be uncharitable.

There is one place where my #1 and #2 (above) actually work together.   A voluminous body of research on “emotional intelligence” demonstrates that the best workers and leaders have this quality.  An emotionally intelligent person is appropriately self-aware, can read and is sensitive to emotional cues in co-workers and operates with moral sensitivity (compassion, generosity, integrity, etc.).  The problem with the term “emotional intelligence” is that it sounds all clinical and psychological (e.g. scientific) rather than philosophical and spiritual.

The literature on emotional intelligence actually pays quite a bit of attention to moral concerns.  You can’t have compassion, for instance, without moral sensitivity.  Therefore, a truly emotionally intelligent person ought to be a liberally educated person.  I hasten to add that a liberally educated person does not need to go to college to be liberally educated.  However, if you read our mission statements, the colleges and universities where we work think that developing skillful, morally sensitive leaders is what our work is about.  Ergo, a liberally educated person ought to make a really good worker.

The pragmatic bent of our national consciousness tends to think of job skills in almost exclusively technical terms: can a person accomplish this or that math or business or professional skill?  Obviously, some jobs require extensive technical expertise (or at least aptitude).   But if we want people to work for us, with us, by our sides; if we want morally sensitive and courageous people committed the common good, then we’d better understand competency in much broader terms that our national conversation seems to recognize.

It’s obvious that people who make good grades don’t necessarily make the best workers.  It’s obvious that the credit hour system that has organized academic life for a hundred years does not on its own lead to technical competence in a particular discipline.  It wasn’t meant to carry this burden.

What apparently isn’t so obvious – tragically – is what students need to live productive and meaningful, good lives   for the rest of their lives.  Higher education still has something to say about that.

About Stephen Rankin

Professionally Steve Rankin is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. He currently serves as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally Steve is married to Joni and has four grown children and two grandchildren. I believe a big part of my particular calling has to do with leadership development in the church and with church renewal (they go hand in hand). You can find his personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.

Comments

  1. Stephen,
    The problem, at least for me, is not at the post-secondary level. For me, what you are describing is a continuation of what has taken place at the high school level. Understand that I have taught at both the high school and college levels, though not in a few years.

    High school instruction, especially in the sciences, has evolved into a college preparatory process, even if that is not what the student wants to do. Second, students at the introductory level college expect college to be very similar to what they recently experienced in high school and since the material is essentially the same at both levels, why should they not expect it to be the same.

    Over the past decade or so, education has been transformed from being liberal arts oriented to vocational oriented. The whole process of education at the K – 12 level is designed to make “workers” out of the students; individuals who can complete specific tasks without thinking.

    Success in the K – 12 process is the ability to do well on the test and one’s grades reflect that. That is the other part of the attitude that students bring into college.

    If one is strong in the liberal arts, then one can adapt to any situation. But companies don’t want workers who can think independently; they want workers who can do the job without question or adaptation. They like students who have exceptional grades because it means that they have been able to complete the tasks without question. They will make good and loyal workers.

    As I have written on my own blog, we have created a class of students who can solve problems when the solutions are in the back of the book; they cannot solve problems that they have never faced. I think the only solution to this overall problem is going to happen when we as a society are faced with a problem of immense complexity, one that requires thinking and analytical skills that are not being currently taught. I just hope that when this occurs, we will have time to find the solution.

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