06/01/2011 03:02 pm ET Updated Aug 01, 2011

America's Higher Education Resource

Recently I participated in two interesting public discussions about the value of a liberal arts education in America today. The first came through an invitation from CNN to talk about the importance of science education in the context of a broadly based college experience. CNN was responding to increasing concern about "America's math and science lag," and my essay tried to make the case for science as a crucial part of a robust liberal arts education. The urge to take a shortcut to technological proficiency is short-sighted as public policy, I argued, because that sort of science education isn't as rich, and also because we need a citizenry capable of understanding this sector in context. My CNN opinion piece can be found here.

At the end of last week a producer from PBS called to ask if I'd go on the News Hour to speak to why a college education is still worth the investment. This was prompted, in part, by a Peter Thiel's recent awarding of grants of 100k to young inventors who would prefer to pursue their ideas outside school. Of course, Mr. Thiel is right to point out that some people can thrive outside a university environment, though he himself graduated with a philosophy degree from Stanford. That's where he probably developed his deep admiration (which I share) for René Girard, a French philosopher/literary critic. I wonder where outside a university context he thinks a young American might be exposed to this kind of thinker.

We in higher education need to be clearer about what we think students are learning during their four years in college. American higher education at its best provides multiple access points for different kinds of students who become more literate, more capable of acting as citizens, and more able to work with others while thinking for themselves. Universities must encourage free inquiry and cultivate the kind of risk-taking, work ethic and planning that are crucial to entrepreneurship (and scholarship, and civic engagement). Alas, our PBS interview seemed to be over just as it was getting started. You can find a clip of the broadcast here.

Colleges and universities must develop practices of self-criticism and experimentation so as to discover the most compelling, pragmatic ways to fulfill the promise of higher education. The issues facing families looking at higher education are daunting. Those considering a college education must demand transparency from schools about graduation rates, curricula, and faculty who will really be working in the classroom. Where does teaching matter? Which schools focus on creating opportunities for students? How does a school support students who are struggling, and how does a school challenge its very best performers? How does the college or university judge its failures and successes, and how does it measure up according to its current students and recent graduates?

At our best schools, faculty are in conversation with students and staff, continually striving to improve a learning experience from which one will draw for a lifetime. When it works well, our higher education sector offers a wide range of choices to students who hope to build on their education in different ways. This is great American resource to be protected and cultivated.