On Quality Higher Education: An Essay in Three Installments, Part 3

To Our Readers: After some reflection, we’ve decided to violate the “rules of the road” with respect to the preferred length of blogs, and we are releasing the second and third blogs in this series at the same time. As always, we welcome and learn from your comments, sent either as notes to us or posted here on the site.

by Howard Gardner and Wendy Fischman

Re-Embracing the Liberal Arts: The Pivotal Roles of On-Boarding and Intertwining

In the previous blog, we called for an affirmation—or, more properly, a reaffirmation—of the academic and cognitive aims of higher education. Why is it challenging to re-embrace fully the core of a liberal arts education? We have identified two principal reasons.

One reason is mission sprawl. As one learns about so-called liberal arts institutions today, one swiftly encounters a wide range of aspirations, many of which have little to do with academic or even cognitive aspirations. Colleges are expected to produce good citizens; kind and empathic human beings; happy persons who are self-realized; individuals who want to lead the world, change the world, be good team players, make the world better; individuals who are healthier in mind and body. We admire these aspirations. But it’s clear that no institution can achieve all of these goals (see our recent blog on takeaways for college presidents), and it’s not at all clear that colleges—as campuses, as institutions, indeed as economic enterprises—can or should aim for all of these goals.

Indeed, we contend that at most one other goal can be prioritized, and that goal needs to be thoughtfully integrated with the aforementioned academic and cognitive mission.

The second reason stems from the personal challenges that face many students. When we began our own study some years ago, we were completely unprepared for two major findings across a deliberately disparate set of campuses. We found that challenges of mental health were encountered everywhere, and were, for whatever reasons, on the increase. And across campuses, we found as well (and presumably relatedly) that a large number of students reported their feeling that they did not belong; they felt alienated in one or another way—from the academic agenda, from their peers, from the overall institutions. And to our surprise, this alienation proved more prominent among graduating students than among incoming students!

Of course, colleges did not arise chiefly to address these personal issues, any more than they arose to increase voting or encourage fraternizing or to better the neighborhood or engender personal happiness. But it is simply not possible for colleges to address the principal educational mission we’ve assigned them if a significant proportion of students can’t get past their own feelings of alienation or their mental health challenges.

Indeed, these challenges need to be addressed upfront for students at the beginning of the college experience.


Four years can pass quickly. If there is any chance that colleges are able to address and achieve the assignment that we have proposed, they need initially to carry out four important tasks.

First of all, they have to help students deal with their difficulties in health (physical as well as mental).

Second, they must provide suitable and appealing entries to the academic agenda (to prevent the drift away from academics that has been persuasively documented by Richard Arum and other scholars).

Third, students need to understand why they are being asked to study statistics, stylistics, historical or economic cycles, what the reasons are for reading original texts or carrying out laboratory experiments. They need to grasp that they are not being asked to remember the facts that they encounter but rather that they learn to think in the ways required by different disciplines.

And a fourth point: Schools need to develop courses and materials that invite students into the range of “ways of thinking”: problem solving, problem finding, and exhibiting knowledge that we have argued are the major, and perhaps the most powerful, reasons for offering non-vocational higher education. As we have sometimes put it, at this point in life students will be acquiring intellectual capital on which they can and should draw for the rest of their lives.

We propose that these onboarding experiences are the tasks primarily for the first year, but it may well be that students will need additional “onboarding” as they face new contexts—as they meet different people, choose majors and minors, and discover curiosities and passions. Importantly, new initiatives do not need to be created to help students onboard: the tasks can be and should be integrated into existing structures. And if after these efforts, students can truly not meet these challenges, with the help of teachers and appropriate institutional facilities and facilitators, they should not be enrolled in college at this time in their lives

Resistances to Our Proposed Program

Most institutions of higher learning do not embrace, either explicitly or implicitly, the focused agenda that we’ve proposed. We can identify several reasons:

Unreasonable ambitions. Some schools, including ones with which we have been closely associated, believe that they can and should achieve a wide range of goals in four years. And perhaps with some students—the same ones or different ones—they can claim across-the-board success. But it is far more likely that in the perhaps well-motivated effort to achieve a wider range of goals, they in fact realize none of them or achieve weak and hard-to-document effects.

Indeed, if non-academic goals—say, social or emotional development—are to be reached, they are likely to be reached as a result of the presence of appealing role models on campus and the way the institution itself is run and addresses challenges. If consistent modeling is ingrained in the culture of an institution, most students can be expected to live up to these high standards. To be sure, mental health and belonging issues may need to be specifically supported by trained professionals (either on or off campus).

Pleasing many masters. Even those leaders who realize that they cannot be all things to all people are reluctant to narrow their goals. The scholarly focus that we endorse places at-risk the loyalty and support of different constituents, ranging from parents and student applicants, to the varying agendas of alums, trustees, donors, and the wider society. Like politicians campaigning for office, campus leaders declare a wide range of promises, but know that once in office, these cannot really be achieved. (One could make the same criticism of those involved college admissions, but that is a topic for another day.)

And we have not even mentioned the securing of a good job, often foremost in the minds of what “the sector” has come to term the “customers.”

Confusion about the purpose of any institution. To be successful as an organization, workplace, or profession, it’s important to know one’s mission and to keep that mission sharply in focus. Mission sprawl can be fatal.

Of all the institutions in our society, (and here we have in mind American society), only our schools and colleges are expected to pick up all of the pieces that have not been assumed by other institutions—nuclear and extended family, religious institutions, civil society, community centers, the media, profit-making companies, and the like. And because (as a society) we are not able to orchestrate these various entities, we end up saddling our colleges with the challenge of leading young people from adolescence to adulthood.

It’s an assignment that no institution can achieve—and especially not one whose avowed mission should be a focus on the cultivation of the mind.

Intertwining Goals and Means

We hope to have made the case for the centrality of an academic agenda—what might historically have been dubbed the “University of Chicago” model. But we now want to allow that there may be a “happy medium” between a sole focus on academics, on the one hand, and mission sprawl, on the other hand. Having prioritized the academic mission, it should also be possible to carefully intertwine the academics with one additional mission for a campus.

Based on our own work over the last quarter century, we would propose—as an additional goal—the development of a strong ethical sense. Indeed, we have written extensively about the importance of “good work” and how educational institutions can help orient students toward that goal. But there are other viable missions—for example, civic, religious, spiritual, and communal. 

However—and this is a big reservation—we don’t favor an additional goal unless it is tied—indeed, integrated or intertwined—with the academic program. Rather than pulling students in a different direction, this additional mission should be encountered and embodied across the required curriculum. So, to be specific, if a school prioritizes the nurturing of ethical professionals, ethical issues should arise and be addressed in classes, be they literary, historical, psychological, or “hard science.” Or, by the same token, if a school stipulates the goal of nurturing good citizens, questions of citizenship should be encountered in literary works like An Enemy of the People, history classes on the French Revolution, economics or psychology classes that weigh the advantages of “opt in” vs “opt out” choices. Put differently, the academic and civic or ethical missions should reinforce one another, rather than pull in different directions.

Though each is worth a separate posting if not an article or book, we want to place a few additional issues on the table.

Challenges in Levels of Academic Development. Even if our general vision is accepted, a major challenge needs to be recognized. When they enter college, students may have quite different degrees of knowledge and skills with reference to the academic requirements—both in regard to specific topics and with respect to overall level of analytic and communicative skills. This fact has long been recognized. It was memorably summarized in William Perry’s model of intellectual development during the college years and has recently been poignantly described in Anthony Jack’s The Privileged Poor.

It would be highly optimistic, if not delusional, to believe that these differences can be washed away or eliminated over the college span. But the clear goal of college should be to increase the analytic and performance skills across the board, so that all students end up much stronger than they were at the time of matriculation (we now call this Higher Education Capital, or HEDCAP). Moreover, having moved in a positive direction, it should be possible for students to continue to enhance the key skills post-college, whether in a professional program, on the job, or in their leisure.

Campus life. Most of our work has centered on schools that require, or at least feature, residential life. A “24-7 experience,” in which students have the opportunity to learn from (and sometimes live with) peers and on-campus adults, constitutes a powerful treatment. Undoubtedly, engagement in campus life and residential life provides unique experiences—for example, bonding with peers from different backgrounds, learning about new interests as a result of student clubs and organizations, and taking responsibility for the community as a whole. But at the same time this treatment can work to reinforce the academic goals, it can also compete with them, or even, in the least happy occasion, undermine them.

In brief, campus life should enhance the academic experience, but not overshadow it. Far too often, students focus on social and extra-curricular objectives as a reason to go to college. However, the services and the resources on campus can institute powerful levers in one or another direction. And even more powerful, are the role models and exemplars on campus—professors, administrators, or those who provide services which many students may take for granted, but whose efforts should be acknowledged and, as appropriate, celebrated as well.

Vocational education. It’s fair to ask about the place of vocational education in the picture that we have sketched. We have no objection to schools that describe themselves as training individuals in business, marketing, journalism, pharmacy, or nursing. If they succeed in achieving their avowed goals, they have handled the mission challenge satisfactorily and perhaps enviably.

The question arises as to whether such a vocational school or program can also achieve the liberal arts goals that we have described. In the best instance, we believe that they can. Indeed, we cherish the memorable words of a senior at the Olin College of Engineering who said, “I am achieving the best of both worlds: a liberal arts education and an engineering degree.” But to embody the intertwined double helix of vocational training and liberal arts mind-opening is a formidable challenge.

Why now? In writing these words, for the most part, we believe that we are presenting ideas that are sensible, indeed non-controversial. And we acknowledge that we may be preaching to the choir; individuals who read this blog are likely to be in the field of education and to acknowledge, if not to endorse, the merits to what we are saying.

But we are also writing at a unique time in American (and perhaps world) history. For the first time, large portions of the population believe that higher education is not worth the money or, even more depressingly, that it is bad for the nation. Just why this is so is a complicated matter, one on which far wiser observers have amply commented.

At such times, institutions are tested as they have not been before. And higher education faces a clear choice: the sector can continue to claim, against the evidence and against plausibility, that it can repair the various fault lines in the society. Or it can reassert the major reason for its existence and strive to show that, in the present challenging climate, it can achieve what it was designed to achieve. If it fails, the whole sector is likely to be so fundamentally altered that the vision we’ve described will have disappeared—and perhaps for a very long time.

© 2019 Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner

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  1. On Quality Higher Education: An Essay in Three Installments, Part 2 | Howard Gardner - April 1, 2019

    […] read Part 3 in this series, click […]

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