High Expectations for Higher Education

The opening night of the Time Summit on Higher Education featured a lively discussion, moderated by foreign policy expert Fareed Zakaria. Norman Augustine (former chair of Lockheed Martin), Mitch Daniels (former governor of Indiana and current president of Purdue University), John Holdren (Assistant to the President for Science and Technology), and Condoleeza Rice (former Secretary of State and Stanford Provost) wondered if the United States was losing the “knowledge wars.” Ignoring the question of whether a military framing is the best means of getting at what works and does not when it comes to education, critical underlying assumptions remained: when we think nationally, what is the purpose of higher education? And how do we make sure that invest in education effectively? Education's End

The panel discussion led to multiple discussion among the attendees. At my table, key issues revolved around the current power of STEM and the marginalization of the liberal arts, a concern noted by Condoleezza Rice. We agreed that college education should be instrumental, relevant, and connected to the life skills needed for economic self-sufficiency. But that, for our table, was not enough. We all had much higher expectations for college.

We talked about how a college education helps people to find meaning and to become lifelong learners. We referenced life-changing classes and professors, and the profound impact that our own college, our own university, had on the arc of our lives. All of us believed that college education’s essence is greater than training. The discussion made me think of Anthony T. Kronman’s Education’s End – Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. Kronman, Sterling Professor of Law and Yale Law School, makes the case for teaching – exploring, addressing, and wrestling with – the question of how to live one’s life. In fact, high expectations for higher education are at the very center of the book.

Kronman’s journey to meaning began in earnest at a Williams College undergraduate seminar on existential philosophy. Taught in the professor’s home with a mixture of brilliance and humility, the course opened Kronman’s eyes to the connection between serious thought, academic work, and the power of personal choice. A learned and extraordinary thoughtful man, Kronman uses the course as a leaping off point for an investigation into the power of undergraduate education on individual lives. His purpose, though, is also institutional. The larger argument of the book is about higher education’s slide away from the pursuit of wisdom.

Kronman claims that broad disciplinary concerns with research have unintended effects, limiting the scope and relevance of  scholarship. While the professionalization of research may result in quantifiable or manageable outcomes, it robs higher education, Kronman believes, of its ability to synthesize and wrestle with that which cannot be contained in a discipline. I have elided the rich history of Kronman’s book and his Hegelian organization of broad intellectual movements. In broad strokes, however, Kronman’s argument that has a familiar ring to anyone who has trudged through dissertations or contemporary academic journals – a forest of highly specialized and brilliant minutiae.

The shortcoming of Kronman’s book is that he posits this responsibility of meaning solely on the shoulders of the humanities. I think that it is a broader concern. While it may seem that a philosophy class is the most proper place to engage with the unanswerable questions of meaning, it need not be the only place. In fact, truly outstanding professors almost always teach with a strong thread of relevance and engagement running through their courses. I am not talking about superficial relevance, either; I mean the relevance that connects individual action with collective action with broader societal value. I have been fortunate to hear scientists and social scientists do this, linking the particular with the abstract. Many times I have seen professional faculty engage their students in the hard work of questioning practice and protocol and their relationships with values and choice. The ability to go from the particular to the general to the abstract and back again is a hallmark of good teaching.

In fact, while the humanities may be the area that claims primacy in this sort of difficult thinking, it is found throughout a rigorous college education. What is going on here is not just learning; it is serious thinking that may or may not be able to lead to a “right” answer. What is so interesting about Kronman’s history is, in fact, his underlying belief in the power of humans to think and choose. If a college education can help a student to think seriously and then choose, whether this takes place in philosophy or accounting or nursing, then we have a successful education. This just could be the expectation that we share for higher education, the development of thinking adults.

David Potash

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