The Purpose of Higher Education

I recently reviewed the book Higher Education? (see it here).  The authors expect colleges to perform very specific duties for their students.  Most of their focus is on a true liberal arts education to expand students’ minds and thinking.  Students should discuss the finer points of fine art, then debate the existence of free will, and later explore how Darwin’s travels shaped the theory of evolution.  The authors eschew any sort of vocational training and think students should forestall decisions about careers until after college.

My view of higher education is more pragmatic.  It is a place for young adults to go to start their transition to the real world, and it is the university’s responsibility to prepare them.  The following is my take on the purposes of higher education.

  1. Independence

    Essential for making the move from living with Mom and Dad to striking out on their own, independence means students should learn to assess options and make responsible decisions.  To accomplish this, they’ll need to learn organization, time management, budgeting, and general responsibility.  They don’t need to know everything.  Just like good leadership, students need to learn how to find the information they need.

  2. Critical thinking

    Part of the path to independence is learning to think critically:  analyzing facts, identifying bias, maintaining a healthy skepticism.  Students need directed practice with all of this.  I feel that teachers often tell students to think critically without guidance and explaining the process.  If more undergraduates learn to use reason, then we might be able to expect the same from the news media and politicians.

  3. Understanding others’ points of view

    The third point on my list stems from a personal observation.  In recent years, it seems that our nation is polarizing.  We need to force students to consider other points of view.  What motivates other people?  What are their goals, methods and needs?  What value is there in their arguments?  Where is the common ground?  Without this understanding, we get the Tea Party movement:  a group of extreme conservatives who enter politics (a supposedly balanced system based on negotiation) vowing to never compromise.  Outside of politics, there are many different cultures and walks of life; we all have a lot to learn from each other

  4. How to learn

    One of the greatest advances of Homo sapiens over our primate ancestors appears to be our ability to learn and pass on information between generations.  As such students need to not only learn lots of information, but they need to learn how to learn.  Whether it’s cramming a lot of information into short-term memory or cementing important ideas into long-term memory, we need to draw upon our knowledge to solve problems.  Learning to think about how you think (metacognition) can also tell you about how you’re learning and why you’re thinking the way you are.  Plus, one way to be creative is to apply concepts and ideas you’ve seen before to a new context.

  5. Creative outlets

    No matter how much you ask students to do for class, they need to identify creative outlets.  I know that my mind works in a logical, structured manner.  In high school, I still used formulas for constructing paragraphs (intro sentence, three sentences of support, conclusion sentence).  But I still crave a way to engage the creative side of my brain, so I cook, bake, craft, garden, and write.  All of our students need ways to use the right side of their brains.  We should encourage this outside the classroom, but we can also provide alternative assignments.  Instead of writing an essay, make a video or record a podcast.  Be careful, though, because you may end up with a few models of DNA made from toothpicks.

  6. Technology

    Most students enter college with a passable understanding of technology.  It may seem like they’re nearly technokinetic, but they still have a lot to learn about appropriate uses of technology.  Sure, they can set up your iPad to ePrint, but do they know how to weigh the merits of their resources?  Is their only recourse for research Google?  It is our duty to expand their tech repertoire beyond P2P filesharing systems to make sure they are responsible netizens.  It’s especially easy in the online environment to let social mores slide, relying on sarcasm and snarkiness instead of consideration and thoughtfulness.  We need to help them remember that human beings, not computers, are at the other end.

  7. Career guidance

    In my personal experience, one of the biggest failings of academia is providing each student with sufficient career guidance.  At most schools, career centers are opt-in opportunities.  It’s feasible that a student could obtain a degree in Spanish and then realize that he has no idea what his career options are.  The “pre” tracks (pre-med, pre-law, pre-vet, etc.) make it clear what their suggested coursework is and the main career options are fairly obvious.  The same cannot be said for other majors.

    In order to tackle this, I believe that our career and advising centers should be merged.  Start at orientation and make advising an open, genuine discussion.  Continue to meet with students at least every semester to get them into the career frame of mind.  College is about learning and growing, but the college experience should help students frame their career goals.  What jobs do they want to do?  What skills and experiences will they need to get there?  It’s great if you major in a topic you find interesting (psychology, philosophy, chemistry), but another option is to choose the major most in line with your goals and keep interesting classes for minors or one-off electives.  Each department should also have career counselors to delineate common paths.  You could go to graduate school in biology, become a laboratory tech, work at a museum, teach in the public schools, etc.  Many students face these options alone after graduation, so we can demystify this process and provide them with the resources to succeed.

  8. Health – physical, mental, social

    For many students, college is the first time they’re in total control of their lives, including food choices, schedules, and friends.  As educators, we have the opportunity to teach our students about their health from academics to application:  biochemistry and physical wellness; psychology and self-awareness; sociology and empathy.  We can have a profound impact on their overall health if we help them establish sound, balanced habits as they prepare for the real world.

  9. Sense of local and global community

    No man is an island and it seems like no part of the world is disconnected.  Colleges, for that matter, are rooted in their local community and connected to the world.  Our curricula should encourage students to explore their local communities and get involved in town politics and volunteerism.  Courses should include themes of globalism.  Ask students to consider how the material they’re studying affects problems in industrialized and developing countries.  Our world is becoming increasingly interconnected, so we should help our students start to make those mental connections.

  10. Passable understanding of art, science, etc.

    Nearly all schools promote a liberal arts education through general studies requirements.  No matter your major, all students will take classes on history, social science, writing, science, etc.  Advanced Placement classes in high school can help students opt out of many of these requirements.  Many students barely eke through non-major classes because they have to.  Admittedly, as a science student, I had trouble seeing the significance of my non-science courses.  I’ve also talked with non-science people and it’s clear that they did not have good experiences with biology and chemistry.

    A liberal arts education is more than making “well-rounded” students.  While students are specializing in their majors, they should also understand the basics of other fields.  By studying different subjects, students should be making connections gaining new perspective.  How does history influence chemistry and vice versa?  What can we learn from biology and apply that to psychology and sociology?  Moreover, if our students can tell fact from spin, then they can make more informed decisions.

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