A Laser-Like Focus on Academics:  Responses to Four Skeptics

by Howard Gardner and Wendy Fischman

Our comprehensive national study of higher education has focused on colleges that describe their curricula as based on “the liberal arts” or “the liberal arts and sciences.”  Because those terms are widely misunderstood, we have (with some reluctance) decided to substitute descriptions that are blander and possibly more transparent—“general education” or “non-vocational education.”  And while we have our own ideas about curricula that are most appropriate for students in college and the optimal means of delivering those curricula, we are content to leave this important task to the faculty—in deference to the vital concept of “faculty governance.”

Alas, our study has revealed a sobering message.  For most students, and indeed, for most constituents other than faculty, the overall mission or purpose of collegiate education is far from clear. As schools seek to serve different constituencies—ranging from parents and students to donors and elected officials—it becomes all too easy to ignore the major reason why colleges exist—or, at least, why they should exist.

For us, the answer to that question is clear.  Just as the principal purpose and activities in K-12 education are properly academic—so, too, the purposes and activities of 2, 3, or 4 years at college should be academic, first, front, center.  We would not (and should not) take seriously a K-12 education that failed to instill the basic literacies, or ignored science, or history, or language.  And yet, we have ample evidence that the academic purposes of college are often far less evident to most of the principal constituencies.

Over the course of two centuries, many brilliant authors and spokespersons have put forth convincing arguments for a broad, general, liberal arts education.  We need not—and will not—give a second-hand version of the persuasive case made by such eloquent advocates as John Henry Cardinal Newman, W. E. B. DuBois, or more recently, Carol Geary Schneider or James O. Freedman. Moreover, it’s our impression that in the middle of the 20th century, these advocacies or defenses of an education in the liberal arts were widely accepted—or at least not openly challenged. Most institutions of higher learning endorsed the spirit of the famous Red Book “General Education in a Free Society.”

The scene is different today.  Many individuals, particularly those who lean politically to the right, question the need for a broad college education; and others across the political spectrum challenge college on other grounds—ranging from the costs to the signals to the offerings to the results.  In what follows, we re-create the issues raised by four representative (and hypothetical) skeptics; and as researchers and writers about higher education, we respond to these points.

Skeptic 1  The Cost: “I have nothing against college per se, or even against academics, but the cost of college has become insane.  It’s affordable only to the rich and to the rare minority fortunate enough to secure a generous scholarship. If you can get a job without going to college, it’s better to just skip college—college is not worth it.”

Response

We understand.  College is increasingly out of reach financially for Americans as well as for students from abroad.  Some of these costs are inevitable—not all of education can be done on a mass or online scale. And there is ample evidence—at least until this moment—that the costs of college are more than compensated for by higher earnings across the lifespan, even for those who do not major in STEM areas.

But, it should also be possible for schools to cut costs. So much of the new money in higher education is for what we would term “frills”—ever more luxurious dormitories, dining halls, student centers, athletic fields, and the like. The explosion of administrative posts, and the rapid turnover therein are causes for deep concern. A laser-like focus on academics—good teachers, learning-friendly classrooms, excellent online facilities, fair and probing tests—could be a win economically, as well as a win academically.  Moreover, it is worth considering a policy whereby graduates who are successful financially tithe a certain percentage of their future income to the colleges that they attended.

Skeptic 2  Politically Skewedness: “I am a traditionalist, a conservative, though not one of those extremists on the far right (or the far left).  Our colleges are skewed sharply to the left.  Few faculty members are Republicans, and most social science courses are closer to socialism than to social science.”

Response: Without question, faculty tend to be progressive, though the distribution differs across campuses (sacred vs secular) and majors (English vs engineering).  We are completely against any kind of political litmus test for faculty appointments. Indeed, other things being equal, it’s preferable to have a humanities or science department that spans the political spectrum.

But we cannot hide our belief that, in the last forty years, the American political spectrum has shifted sharply—and that has included a sharp move to the right, including the extreme right. And so, it’s important to distinguish between those individuals who have traditional conservative views points, and those who take extreme right wing views.  We would make exactly the same point about those on the left side of the political spectrum—we have no tolerance, for example, for those who will not defend free speech or will disallow speakers of a conservative perspective or will silo or otherwise privilege specific racial or ethnic groups.

An important reminder: Over the centuries, students tend to become liberal in adolescence and more conservative as they age.  As Winston Churchill famously quipped.  “Anyone who is not a liberal in his youth has no heart. Anyone who remains so as he matures has no brain!”

Skeptic 3  The Social and Civic Purposes of College:  “I think four years, preferably residential, on a college campus are very valuable.  You meet and network with a diverse group of people, you can join and participate in various organizations, play one or more sports, help out on campus, and in the wider community.  This is why college cannot only be academic—if so narrowly focused, you would miss out on all these other experiences. Campus life was what made college special for me, and what I would like for my own children and…some day, for my own grandchildren.”

Response: We are firm believers in the opportunities afforded by two or four years of higher education. Especially for those who live on campus or who have ready access to a campus, it’s a once-in-a lifetime opportunity for “growth” and “exposure”—of the sort that you have described.  And for most individuals, the college years occur at the right time of life—when a certain degree of mental and emotional maturity has been reached but financial and familial obligations are relatively modest.

But we must say it bluntly:  You don’t need colleges just for these opportunities!  You can also get such experiences in your neighborhood or your community, or by traveling abroad, or even moving to a new (and different) region of the country. And more relevantly, you can (and perhaps should) get them through the military, public service, or your place of work.  As one example, the Scouting movement provides all of these experiences directly.

But, if these are your primary goals for college, then we might as well get rid of the faculty, courses, libraries, research laboratories, museums, and all of the leaders and employees that are connected to such fixtures in our institutions of higher learning. Indeed, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have experienced that much of college—focused on teaching and learning—can be done on-line (even though this is not always the most preferred or the most effective method for transmission).

To be clear: these experiences outside of the academic classroom (whether physical or online) are worthy. Indeed, important conversations, discoveries, and learnings take place in dorms, dining halls, and campus centers—in addition to the classroom and the research lab. But if these aspects of college—what we call “student life”—are disassociated from the academic experiences—students  will conclude that it’s up to them to choose the priorities of higher education.

If colleges are to foreground experiences—ones which encourages exploration and transformation—ones which stimulate students to think in new and powerful ways—then academics must be front and center!  Everything else, including social and civic purposes, need to be carefully connected to an institution’s mission. And, as we argue at length in our forthcoming book, if you want to add a single extra non-academic goal—say, public service— that needs to be onboarded from day one; and thereafter it needs to be intertwined with the academic experience.

Skeptic 4  It’s about a job: (or to adapt James Carville’s famous quip “It‘s the jobs, stupid.”)

“Perhaps in earlier times, when jobs were plentiful and the paths to advancement were clear,  one could afford to have a college education where you took a range of courses, joined various clubs, fell in (and out of) of love, and majored in art, archaeology, or ancient history.  But the world is different now. Preparation for the job market should be the chief, perhaps the major raison d’etre for higher education.  And if the college education does not do that, we should close down college—or at least those colleges that can’t prove that they provide a successful return on investment.”

Response

As parents, grandparents, observers and educators, we feel your pain. It would certainly be disappointing to go to college for four years, apply for jobs, and end up either unemployed or with a job that clearly did not depend on educational experiences at an academic institution.

We believe in “truth in advertising.”  If a school wants to describe itself in strictly vocational terms, so be it.  If General Motors or Goldman Sachs wants to launch a college, let them do so. But we should not be naïve about this.  Jobs change very quickly;  young people are not loyal to jobs or employers (and the reverse). The notion that somehow attendance at a school explicitly linked to journalism or to engineering or to pharmacy will magically solve your vocational aspirations is naïve at best and perhaps fundamentally misleading. Not to mention the possibilities of artificial intelligence and robots completely disrupting the vocational landscape.

Moreover, in all probability, the decision to go to an explicitly vocational school radically reduces the opportunity to acquire two of the most valuable—indeed, we would say, invaluable—opportunities inherent in a college education:  the opportunity to think differently, in a more sophisticated way (which we term “Higher Education Capital);” and the opportunity to explore widely, to consider the different ways in which individuals have thought about the world. In the process, these opportunities will increase the likelihood that one will be transformed in one or  more ways—as a thinker, in terms of how one relates to other persons, and as one whose values are tested and perhaps changed—what we have termed  “the mental models of college.”

To be clear: not all college students will explore; not all college students will be transformed in one or more way; and not all college students will exhibit an increase in higher education capital.  But we feel that it is unfortunate—even, tragic—to foreclose these precious opportunities for young people who are growing up in the 21st century—a time of great possibilities but, equally, of powerful threats.  To understand either of these perspectives—and to give students the right to pursue them—is an obligation that we owe to all young persons who are willing and able to do so.

Concluding note

No doubt, as you learn more about our study, you will raise some of these points yourself, or perhaps hear the voice of the “town skeptic” raise some of these points.  We hope that, in turn, you will keep our brief responses in mind—and—in the spirit of the liberal arts—continue the conversation.

We thank our colleagues for comments on an earlier draft of this blog, including Sophie Blumert, Shelby Clark, Danny Mucinskas, and Christina Smiraglia.

© Howard Gardner and Wendy Fischman 2020

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