Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Mission of College

(The usual caveats about a meandering Steanso opinion piece apply.  Skip it if you don't have an interest in a healthy dose of "you know what they oughtta do!")

There was a piece by Frank Bruni in the New York Times last Sunday which talked about the ongoing debate in Texas over what the mission of the University of Texas, and by extension the Texas public university system in general, should actually be.  There has been a bit of an ongoing standoff recently between the University of Texas Board of Regents (all appointed by Governor Rick Perry) and university president Bill Powers.  The conflict reflects different visions for the school.  One involves a less expensive, vocation-oriented university where research is more goal oriented and pragmatic, with funding driven by graduation rates.  The competing model is more traditional, allowing for more studies in the liberal arts, humanities, and other areas that aren't directly linked to vocational training.  This model also allows for more open ended, purely investigative research that doesn't necessarily promise to deliver a short term economic payoff (but which may end up ultimately leading to knowledge that provides substantial long term benefits).

Like Bruni, I'm sort of conflicted about the whole situation.  At a time when the economy has been struggling and when there are increasing demands to keep our workforce educated and trained (one of the best ways to keep our standard of living up in a global economy), it makes sense to have a greater focus on a trained workforce.  I also recognize that college tuition has become extremely expensive and that education costs are increasingly out of control.    Students who graduate with degrees that don't reliably translate into a career often find themselves strapped with awful amounts of education debt and few immediate choices in terms of being able to pay it down.

I think that a greater focus on job readiness and the creation of a more skilled workforce is almost certainly a good thing, both for most students and for the country. 

On the other hand, I don't think that the focus on the pragmatic should come at the cost of a near exclusion of liberal arts and humanities classes that lend themselves to higher level critical thinking skills and a better educated populace. 
In the interest of full disclosure, I attended a small, liberal arts university and received an undergraduate degree in philosophy.  I completed coursework for minors (which I never declared) in sociology (mostly criminology), psychology, and speech/rhetoric. 
My classes during my undergraduate studies seemed to have only the slightest bearing on any profession or career that I might pursue as an adult (at the time my career aspirations sort of vacillated between philosophy professor, rock star, bar owner, or maybe attorney- but not a "boring kind" of attorney).
In short, I gravitated toward things that interested me, but without any sort of overarching career path or model to guide me.  In the end, although my classes weren't all directly relevant to my future career, I don't feel like I wasted my time or my money.

As a 4o year old attorney, I've ended up working as a criminal prosecutor who specializes in cases with mentally ill people.

Its become almost a cliche for some of the people in these arguments about education to say that the jobs awaiting today's students haven't even been invented yet.
If I look back to the time when I was in college, this was literally true.
There were attorneys, of course, and prosecutors, but there wasn't a focus on mental illness in the criminal justice system.  The idea of trying to incorporating a greater understanding of mental illness into the justice system was just that when I was in college- an idea.  The first specialized prosecutor for mental illness in Travis County appeared about two years before I got the gig.

Law school, of course, was the predominant educational tool for my current career.  My law degree taught me the law and the basics of legal practice.
But, looking back on things, my undergraduate studies also played a substantial role in laying the groundwork for my current job.  They certainly didn't consist of any sort of formalized training, but they sort of put me on a path.
My philosophy degree included studies in analytical reasoning and ethics.  Any attorney who's had to dissect the validity of various legal arguments and test the strength of an opponent's logic has, consciously or subconsciously, applied some of the same skills used by philosophy students to examine various philosophical theories.  Classes on ethics were good training in how to recognize appropriate ethical principles and apply them objectively and dispassionately (and about why they probably ought to be applied objectively).
My criminology classes in the sociology department did a good job of highlighting some of the realities behind crime and separating them from public perception.  I learned that the media, in their effort to present viewers with shocking and morbidly fascinating stories, often creates a distorted view of crime and its impact on society (e.g., for drug crimes, low income minorities are apprehended and prosecuted at an exponentially higher rate than whites, who commit those crimes at the same rates;  people are far more likely to be victimized by an act of violence or sexual assault that's perpetrated by someone that they know as opposed to a stranger;  white collar criminals steal much, much more money than common burglars or thieves, but are prosecuted far less frequently and receive lower sentences; if you're going to die as the result of a crime, it's more likely to be DWI than homicide; etc.).  Sociology was far more interesting than I expected it to be.
My rhetoric classes were all about persuasive discourse, and, well, that's what I spend a lot of my time doing now (or trying to do).  I'm not saying that studying Cicero and Caesar imbued me with their abilities, but at least it got me thinking about persuasive speaking and writing, and it made me realize that the power to influence opinion has been recognized as a really important skill throughout history.  It also drove home some common characteristics and themes that great orators have employed throughout history.  Good stuff to check out if your job will one day involve debating with defense attorneys, judges, and occasionally jurors.
And, of course, having some basic psychology classes helped me to understand a little bit about some of the disorders, conditions, and symptoms that I see every day on my docket.  I gained a foundational understanding of not only various mental illnesses, but of the way that health care providers diagnose, assess, and treat mental illness.  Obviously I wasn't really learning any sort of clinical stuff, but my psychology classes at least gave me a framework that I would later use as I learned more about mental health in my current job.  As I've said before- I don't pretend in any way to be a clinician, but at the same time, my current position requires me to be able to carry on a coherent, intelligent discussion when they're talking about defendants who are living with mental illness and behavioral health issues.
Just by way of example, I get a case and evaluate it using some knowledge that I gained from my psychology classes (hopefully having some understanding of what schizophrenia is colors my decision if a person's behavior is reflecting some of his symptomology).  Criminology comes in helpful as just a bit of background when evaluating cases (e.g., an assault is not made less serious by way of the fact that it occurred between family members- even if they later wish the case would go away.  If I give a defendant a better deal just because his lawyer says he's a good kid who's in college, I'm sort of contributing to a trend in which higher income people get a different result from the justice system than lower income defendants).  I use my law degree to see if I can prove a case and to analyze legal arguments.  I use my philosophy and rhetoric degrees to argue with/persuade/cajole defense attorneys and judges.

So these are the most direct effects of my liberal arts philosophy degree, which most people might assume has no "practical" value.  I think they were useful.  I had no idea that these classes would have some degree of helpfulness in any future career when I took them.  They were just part of the person that I became. Maybe I migrated toward a field which involved some of the same subjects that interested me in college.  Maybe the interests that I developed in college as a result of these classes helped lead me to my current job.
Either way, I think my liberal arts degree was important to both my development as a person and to my future career.

I still think that there's some validity to the argument that we need more pragmatism in education.  Students should be more strongly encouraged to graduate, and to do so in a reasonable amount of time.  Teenage students who are entering college frequently don't recognize the long term impact of their loans, and they could use a bit of pressure in terms of getting their degrees completed on time.  It probably wouldn't hurt to require students to take some career-oriented, practical classes.

But leave some room for the liberal arts and the humanities.  The world is a changing, evolving place (and I don't just mean in terms of technology).  Various fields of study are finding new ways to overlap with one another all of the time.  It may sound like an eggheaded concept, but there's legitimate, practical value to be gained by letting students learn more about the world around them and having them gravitate toward subject areas that spark their interest.  A broad knowledge base and strong critical thinking skills will give students the flexibility to navigate a perpetually shifting professional landscape.

We need people with vocational training, but we also need people with the talents to recognize where, when, and how to apply technical talent.

I'm going to stop because I think this is devolving into a bit of a ramble, but...

Don't turn our universities into factories for computer programmers, engineers, and accountants. 
We need those people, but we also need students to have a wider perspective and a greater curiosity about how the world works. 
They'll make good employees and good citizens.  


1 comment:

The League said...

Working in higher ed, you can feel the pressure from the politicians who really don't understand who a research university is not just a trade school where you also get to drink to excess and wear a lot of matching colors. Having been through a large research school, yes, absolutely, the university did a lousy job in the 90's of explaining its larger mission, and did so before the 90's and up to the current day.

Universities are truly the producers and curators of human knowledge. It's where we go when we suddenly need to know something about Chechnya, or why you don't put water on certain chemicals. They also happen to provide the opportunity to share that knowledge via teaching, publishing, etc...

Because we're self-centered ape things, most of us just see researchers/ faculty as "that d-bag in tweed who should have made their class easier". And, you know what, maybe that faculty should have spent less time over a microscope or looking at dusty old books and considering how to actually teach, if that's part of their responsibility.

There's definitely room for improvement in higher ed, but the vision of trade schools isn't right if you want an educated populace - as you argue. And evaluating students on some core competencies also doesn't make sense when you have an infinite number of iterations of paths for any one person to complete a degree. They proved their competence in the letter grade and their academic progression.

That said - the US only offers four tracks for people graduating from high school:

1. College
2. Military
3. mediocre retail work with no plan for career advancement
trade schools that are hugely
4. expensive, and mostly exist to abuse loan programs

And the occasional kid who was a recluse and so they learned some computer skills on their own, but who will constantly struggle for a job because they don't have a degree.

If politicians want to look to corporate models, they should be looking for corporations to provide real education and training programs that will apprentice people into the workers they need. Asking community colleges and other underfunded institutions to pick up the slack (and asking future workers to go into deep debt to get those jobs by getting a college degree that won't be largely relevant) could also be an option.

I have been extremely proud of UT's alumni base as they've fended off political attack after attack on the university. And their opponents can be heartened to know that the criticisms have been heard and the University is considering changes that will benefit everyone.