Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Mon, 02 Apr 2001 09:40:49 -0400 (EDT)
Random Thought: On Higher Education

This is sort of out of step with the theme of my last few sharings. I'll get back to it. I'd like to step to a important sidebar. What broke my cadence was an Op-Ed piece in the NY Times last week by Michele Tolela Myers, President of Sara Lawrence College titled "Student Is Not An Input." I've been thinking alot about it. In it Dr. Myers talks, bemoans is a better word, of the invasion into the academy of business practices and business-speak that talk of markets, competition, students as consumers, professors as salespersons, outsourcing ventures for profit (I guess that means research grants and not just sports programs), brand value (that means so many Merit Scholars per student body or level of SAT entrance scores or number of Nobel Prize winners on the faculty) and brand recognition (winning sport national championships).

Ah, me. From Dr. Myer's comments you would think the immaculate, pristine, intellectual, contemplative, ethical, moral Ivory Tower had finally been breeched by the assault of invasing forces from the outside, sordid, egotistical, greedy, immoral, oafish, unethical, materialistic world.

I think there is a bit of irony in Dr. Myers grief, maybe even a touch of disingeniuitys. It sort of reminds me of Milton Berle when in response to applause he would hold up one hand in a stop gesture trying to quiet the crowd while using the other hand, held down, with a beckoning gesture to keep the applause going. So, I ask if this business-speak really is a distressing new language or are the words lamenting because they are more honest, more descriptive, more graphic, and less euphemistic. Maybe we don't want to be reminded that that supposed breech had been made long ago and we have been feeling, thinking, and acting as Jabez Stones for a long, long time. Maybe what we are really sad about is that we can't find a defending Daniel Webster now that the devil is calling in his note. Maybe we are beating ourselves because we just don't like to be reminded of that fact and shaken from our haughtiness and delusional self-denial that we aren't as high above and far removed from commercialization of academia as we tout ourselves to be.

What is it, then, that supposedly makes Higher Education higher? Is it the training of more skills? Is it the transmission of more information? Is it the granting of more degrees? Is it the generation of more thinking? More is not necessarily better much less higher.

The answer lies in a set of simple questions that have extraordinarily difficult answers: what are we trying to accomplish? What is our mission? What is our purpose? What is our vision?

It would seem to me that the focus on the development of skill and the transmission of information creates experts and maybe professionals. In almost all aspects of the academy, from tracking in high school, to college recruitment, to the divisive system of majors curriculae, to the packing of major programs myopically with "courses appropriate to the major," to demeaning students as input and faculty as units, to fighting to eliminate those pernicious non-occupational, supposedly impractical "what good are they" courses and curricula like history and philosophy and literature and the arts, to cost-consideration of course and program offerings, to grading and testing, to placement offices, to internships, to business recruitment, to the diploma, to the GRE and LSAT and GMAT, we tout a college degree as little more than an entrance ticket into the job--oops, sorry, professional--market. Oh, some of those snappy looking recruitment brochures may talk a good talk about living and down play job skills, but our entire academic operation, from recruitment to graduation, is geared towards the practicality of making a living. Is that what makes Higher Education higher? Higher salaries? Higher social position? Higher prestige? I think not. In the race to become wealthier, maybe we become poorer; and in climb to be higher, we descend lower. To restrict the "higher" to only more of the "lower" is merely to create a hive of expert and professionl drones, those 50's obedient people in the gray, flannel suits. We delude ourselves with self-denial to think otherwise. We blame that "society made us do it." And don't like being reminded of that fact of our collusion.

I don't think that an educated person is merely a skilled person, that an educated person is merely an informed person, that an educated person is merely a thinking person, and that an educated person is merely an expert or professional. An educated person is, above all, a moral and ethical person with all those skills and knowledge. An educated person is an free, independent thinking person. An educated person is a socially and communally responsible person who is acutely aware of how his or her thoughts, utterances, and acts affects others. An educated person is a person of character. That definition answers the question of what we should be trying to accomplish, and raises the sights of academics and students to the high heights of creating a more moral and ethical as well as skilled and knowledgeable, world and not merely a more informed or a more technologically advanced society.

I just say quickly that learning is not merely the gathering of information and the honing of skills; learning is not merely the utilization of those skills and information. Learning is how and to what ends those skills and that information are applied. I'll say it again. The Keatings and Milikins of this world were not college drop-outs, but they were moral drop-outs. It is not an either/choice of intelletual or entrepeneurial. It never has been. Maybe we can produce an moral, ethical, free-thinking, intellectual entrepeneur.

Obsolete or naive thinking? Impractical and costly attitude? I don't think so, not in a democracy such as ours, not if we want to remain a free and vibrant society. What is truly naive and costly and impractical is to think and act otherwise.

So, I ask. Is higher education really aiming high?

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
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