In the spring edition of National Affairs, Peter Lawler has an excellent and extensive discussion of the challenges facing higher ed. He argues that the biggest problem with our universities is not their failure to prepare students for the job market. This is a real and important problem, especially for under-employed graduates facing a future of eternal debt. But Lawler’s insight is that this is a symptom of a misguided approach to higher education, rather than a root cause of the bad outcomes we observe.
The real issue is schools’ failure to deliver on a more difficult aspiration: the promise to develop a student’s moral character and sense of self-ownership. Lawler clarifies: “Employers who complain about unprepared college graduates, however, often don’t mean that students lack specific technical skills; the problem is that new workers don’t have the general literacy, capacity for thought, and personal discipline necessary for life in the workplace.”
While he gives the techno-Libertarian camp its due in recognizing that the future of education must be “market-based and decentralizing,” he finds the focus on skills and assessment misplaced. Technology will be integral to the future of higher education, but the most difficult challenge arising from this is not that of applying technology in the classroom. The real risk is in allowing a cadre of future leaders to develop high-level technical skills with no moral or philosophical basis for what to do with them.
Education is “neglecting its proper purposes” when it puts a precedence on competencies to the detriment of personal development. So how do we get our institutions of higher learning to return to this higher calling? Lawler points to our tendency to confuse competence with true enlightenment. In the liberal arts especially, a good education is about so much more than a basic level of skills and knowledge. Here’s Lawler: “The truth is that the parts of higher education known as the liberal arts or the humanities haven’t ever been about competence but have rather presupposed it.”
There is much to be done if the liberal arts are to once again promote mastery and maturation. Lawler suggests step one may be to abandon the “lifestyle” approach so common on campus today. The pursuit of the liberal arts has increasingly become a process of inculcating students with a particular style of thought rather than guiding them to an engagement with the great questions of world civilization—questions which will force them to struggle with inconvenient and uncomfortable philosophical issues, such as what kind of people they want to be, how to make difficult ethical judgments, and their duties as citizens.
Students are attracted to the sunny campus lawns, close attention from professors, and those coveted “critical thinking skills,” but often they need to be guided to the challenging academic work and difficult personal transformation that once defined the liberal arts experience. Instead of touting the newest classroom technology, reform-minded people ought to think long and hard about how to restore higher education to its truly higher purpose.