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How Current Debates in Higher Education Terrorize Our Most Ambitious College Students

06/15/2015 09:42 am ET | Updated Jun 15, 2016

Today, if we pay attention to the loudest voices, we seem intent on terrorizing college students, especially the most ambitious and talented among them. The language of this assault is couched in terms of the rights of students to lucrative outcomes to their education immediately following graduation, accomplished in part by the shaping of higher education curricula to current vocational demands. While presented as in the best interest of students, the trend in fact terrorizes the very enterprise of education, particularly in the arts and sciences.

Job training serves the interests of established power in that it prepares the trainee to serve and to replicate the status quo. There's nothing objectively pernicious about the enterprise, unless it is presented as an equivalent substitute for an open-ended, liberal arts education. The more that education is limited to training the less are the odds that the young will challenge the status quo in any area of human endeavor. If higher education is so limited, it will serve the short-term interests of established power, but undermine the longer-term necessity that civilization be infused with youthful passion and ideas. It is, in short, a recipe for stagnation.

Governing boards, legislatures, and accrediting agencies that cite "workforce needs" as a check on "irrelevant" study in the humanities or in the creative arts, for example, serve as terrorizing checks on students who would pursue humanistic inquiry into aesthetic movements and forces, or who would dedicate their lives to forms of social justice.

Threatening a bright, promising student at the age of 20 with joblessness, combined with debt and a tarnished record, is a powerful deterrent to the very expressions of creativity and scholastic accomplishment that brought him or her to the liberal arts and sciences in the first place. If that student chooses to serve immediate workforce needs over free and open inquiry in the broad tradition of liberal learning, the student contributes to the limiting of spiritual and ethical development to the replication of existing social structures and forces, and against the promise of education as a source of social progress and cultural vitality.

Breakthroughs in human civilization, great leaps forward in our capacities as collective, sentient beings, do not come as a result of meeting current needs, or serving existing structures of power and influence. Social justice is served when thought processes evolve, when what was once considered the natural order of things is questioned, and reconceive as aberrant. There was once a society of highly enlightened, intelligent, and refined human beings in the United States who saw their intellectual integrity uncompromised by the holding and trafficking of other human beings as slaves. Only 75 years ago good, ethical, loving people saw nothing inconsistent between their goodness and the maintenance of "white" and "colored" restrooms, water fountains, and railroad cars. Students who were terrorized away from the liberal arts and into serving workforce needs, such as the engineering of passenger rail transport cars, could have good, middle class incomes designing and building for the railroads and not questioning the humanity of transportation policies. But it took another kind of education, another method of intellectual preparation, to begin to see the degrading inhumanity inherent in racial segregation.

Nonetheless, in myriad ways we discourage students from pursuing research -- and creative-based pedagogies, driving many of the coming generation's best minds to lives of compromised intellectual ambition. Threatening students with the twin terrors of joblessness and debt is the most blatant, but there are other expressions of deflation all the more insidious for their seeming normalcy. The linking of monetary rewards to scholastic achievement cheapens creative and intellectual accomplishment by denying its centrality to an educated citizenry and assigning to it instead a reciprocal, limited exchange value. The student thus sees his or her precociousness not as the potential to change the world but as an indication of job-worthiness. Both world and self are in that process trivialized.

Colleges and universities that lead in the generational transfer of knowledge and authority are those that focus on the liberal arts and sciences, employing research- and creative-based instruction, where undergraduate students follow inquiry-based pedagogy, ideally in residence on campus where they engage in equally valuable experiences of lateral, peer-to-peer learning. As such, these institutions have no parallel. They are not like hospitals, because clients do not enter with ailments, but with ambitions; and they do not seek cures, but invite difficult challenges and hard work. These institutions are not like corporations because they do not seek profits, nor do they seek to educate with minimal resources or expense, or for minimal, or predictable outcomes.

On the contrary, anyone familiar with education in the arts and sciences knows that there is no limit to the expense one might incur in providing a stimulating educational environment, staffed with the world's brightest and most accomplished faculty members, with state-of-the art labs, studios, and classrooms. In this sense, higher education's closest parallel is with the defense industry, where there is no limit to what we could spend to assure the nation's security in the face of every conceivable threat to its citizens at home and abroad. The link between education and defense was emphasized in extraordinary ways after the Second World War, and the idea may be traced to Thomas Jefferson's vision for an educated citizenry and to American mass education movements of the 19th century.

If education is linked to the survival of civilization then funding for it is a matter of national defense, defending the very perpetuation of our civilization. In more recent years, as state funding has declined and the cost of tuition has risen dramatically in both the public and private sectors, we've seen a shift toward thinking about education as a consumer expense, as something acquired for personal gain. Through such reconceptualization we have obscured the significance of higher education and in its place have emphasized the acquisition of skills and credentials necessary to replicate the world of the established generation. This won't serve us well in the long run because the best and the brightest of the coming generation won't tolerate forever being handmaidens to their parents' vision of the world.

Education demands generational reexamination -- it is how the young assess their elders. Even though most adults will recognize the necessity and inevitability of young people taking control of their world, many will resist it and there will always be a suspicion -- made manifest by various methods of disdain and dismissal -- that the upcoming generation is unprepared, lacks motivation, or is otherwise not ready to accept the responsibility. It is the inclination of those who are called upon to surrender authority to seek to protect existing social and political structures, in self-interest as well as in the interests of legacy. But legacy is measured less by what is left behind than by what has been prepared to move us forward.