The (current) never-ending story in Higher Ed–Why College?

It’s a kind of addiction–perhaps a required addiction given what I do for a living. But still, like all addictions there is pain and dependency.

What is this addiction? I am drawn continuously to keep reading (and even seeking out) articles and stories about the role and function of higher education, and one of the current plots of this story (seemingly second only to the “is college worth it?” plot), is the “what is college for?” story line.

Two recent entries–one in a place where I expect to find it (Chronicle of Higher Education–Why College is Not a Commoditymay be paywall protected) and one in a place (not entirely unexpected but still not the norm) that took me a bit by surprise, the latest (well, latest for me–I can never keep up) New Yorker–College Calculus – What’s the Real Value of Higher Education (and at least as of 9/11/15, not paywall protected).

As with many addictions, there is less and less pleasure in indulging in the activity–yet I still do it. That is the case here. Neither of these articles posits anything truly original, but both keep the reader considering the issues that are addressed.

In general, this whole sub-genre of higher ed reporting/opining too often (not always, as I don’t want to commit the same offense of which I accuse others) devolves into a standard either-or structure: Higher Education’s primary (and most important) function is to develop the life of the mind. As opposed to: The primary role of higher education is to prepare students to be prepared for the changing world of work.

Thesis–antithesis–is there a synthesis?

There are many (few suited to short-form and more casual discussion of a blog). But I do want to repeat (and emphasize, because I do think it is important and I do think this statement is essential to our identity) a statement I have made elsewhere on this site. At a regional university such as William Paterson, the answer to the either-or question is: Both. Students come here because a college education is a route to a better economic future (not the only route but still one of the most promising). Students come here, as well, to learn and to live, at least a bit, the life of the mind.

And these are not opposed, at least I don’t believe they are.

We’re educators, and we provide knowledge and skill development–students learn from us. And we also work to make sure that students think critically and understand that there is more to education than a rigid career track.

We do both.

I remember way back in Grad School (so this version of the argument is that old–and go read your Plato to see the real history of this argument) being accused (ah, the simple clarity and certainty of the graduate student) of selling out and staking out the middle, because I argued back then that education could do both–critical thinking and employability are not incompatible. I still believe that, and I still think that is what we can do for our students who seek to be better in both ways.