Five Purposes of Higher Education

What do you think higher education is for?

Back in September, Richard Kahlenberg gave a convocation speech in which he outlined five “Purposes of Higher Education.”  I don’t entirely buy them.  Kahlenberg, in his speech, is critical of the extent to which higher education has accomplished these things; I wonder whether they should be our goals at all.

1.  To ensure that every student, no matter the wealth of her parents, has a chance to enjoy the American Dream.

2. To educate leaders in our democracy.

3. To advance learning and knowledge through faculty research and by giving students the opportunity to broaden their minds even when learning does not seem immediately relevant to their careers.

4. To teach students to interact with people different than themselves.

5. To help students find a passionand even a purpose in life.

“4” and “5” work for me as ideals.  How often are they accomplished?  As Kahlenberg says, not very well.  Every time I walk through my school’s cafeteria, I notice that, even after a year or two or three in college, students are still choosing to interact with people very much like themselves.  And a few hours in a few classrooms will show anyone that many college students feel passionate about very little that school has to offer them.

Where “2” is concerned: educating “leaders” is overrated.  We can’t all be leaders, and the world needs educated, successful followers, too.  Kahlenberg seems to be suggesting that those who go to university should be the leaders; this is an outmoded view.  Nowadays, plenty of people who go to university will be employees in large companies, or civil servants.  There’s no reason that higher education can’t provide for them, too.  Kahlenberg is worried that universities are perpetuating old norms by giving preferential admissions to the wealthy and other “legacy admissions”; I think there is a greater problem with the idea that a university education needs to be focused on leadership.  A university education needs to be focused on learning, in all its forms.

Which brings us to “3,” which seems like two different things to me, and neither mentions “learning how to learn,” the most relevant skill to any career or life.  In fact, “3” doesn’t seem concerned with student learning, per se, but with the “advancement of learning” in an abstract sense.  If higher education is to be “education,” it needs to put the concrete, day-to-day learning of students at its center.  “Giving students the opportunity” to “broaden their minds” suggests that faculty are spouting wisdom that students are welcome to partake of if they wish – this view of “education” sits very poorly with me.

And as for “1”…well, I’m not American, so maybe I don’t know from American Dreams, but the concept has always seemed like a great big fraud to me.

Take a hop over to the article, and then come back here and tell me what you think.

Image by Carlos Alberto Brandão