Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.
Thu, 9 Feb 1995
It's late. I am sitting here in my office thinking. A student just left. We were sitting in the empty hallway, sucking on Tootsie Pops, talking about his difficulties in class.
"What's your major?" I asked between licks.
"Accounting," was his slurpy reply. "Why do I have to take history anyway?" he continued as he tried to defend his lack of studying. "What good is all this dead stuff in the past? I'm not going to do anything with it. I don't need it for my major."
A reasonable question.
"Why are you here at the university?" I asked without answering his question.
"To get a good job," replied without skipping a beat. "I want to make money."
An expected and reasonable answer.
"Is that all," I kept probing.
"What else is there," he replied with a look of amazement
That, too, is regrettably a reasonable answer.
Well, as I walked back into my office I started thinking about a question my e-mail friend, Kathy Bolland, raised. In the course of one of our exchanges, she asked, "What is the public paying us for?"
Good question that deserves an answer.
Heck, that student could probably answer the question in a flash. He is probably a good reflection of all that John and Jane Q. Public perceive to be the value of an education. That's probably all they think they pay us and want us to do: train people to get a good paying job. That's probably how many of us educators would answer the question. It certainly is more often that not how we in our kowtowing to legislatures, in our patronizing of the public, in our pandering to ourselves usually explain the value of an education and defend the reasons for our existence. We talk so much about education almost solely in economic considerations, the need to prepare the student for the work place, the need to compete in the global economy, that we have become--or at least think of ourselves--as little more than what I call "white collar vocational institutions." We also hear the earned pronouncements of how the universities are research centers from which spew the world's major scientific advances and technological development necessary to maintain the country's economic vitality and high standard of living.
Don't get me wrong. I think these are legitimate and important purposes and goals and achievements. As valuable as these missions are, and however desirable are the consequences of such efforts, they are not the whole picture. Maybe, not even the most important part of the picture. They may address the issue of economic leadership, technological gaps, and the budget deficits. But, I'm not sure they are effective in generating and harnessing the moral and spiritual horsepower necessary to eliminate the social deficit.
There is an all-important third mission of an education beside teaching of the professions, the search for new knowledge, and the development of new technologies. You can't see it, feel it, hold it, count it, list it, or hear it. It's not to be found in physical structures or test scores or resumes or scholarships or grants or spread sheets or in test tubes or in labs or on keyboards or even on the scoreboard. It doesn't have glitzy or sexy instant quantifiable gratifying results that you can extol at a fund-raiser for alums, brag about in an annual report, or earn an award with. Like the weather, everyone talks about it but does little about it. Oh, you'll find it mentioned in glowing and meaningless mission statements as well as in eloquent and meaningless speeches. But, in reality, it is too often relegated to the neglected position of the third son; it is too often exiled to the periphery of consideration; it is barely and haphazardly addressed; it is too often given little more than grudgingly "let's get it over and done with as quickly as possible so we can get on to the important professional stuff" lip service; it is not taken seriously in either the curriculum--first-year core or otherwise--and the definition of education. If it is embraced, it is done so more often than not with reluctance rather than with great aspiration.
Yet, it is this third mission which distinguishes what we do in higher education--or are suppose to do--from vocational training. Its moral vocational role and function is inseparably woven in with the material missions. It's moral compass provide the guiding spirit of both education and society that are, as Thomas Edison said, the heart and soul that control, guide and give meaning to the creature creations of the mind.
That mission is the preparation of the broadly informed, flexible, adaptable human being endowed with knowledge, skills, and attitude to live rightly as well as to earn a living. It is the development of a thoughtful citizen and a compassionate human being who is also a skilled worker. It is a mission that is concerned with the whole person rather than merely the partial wage-earner. It is the mission that seeks to insure that our students will graduate as individuals of character more competent in their ability to contribute to society, more civil in how they think, more respectful in how they talk, more sympathetic in how they act, more sensitive to the needs of the community of which they are a part. It is a mission that promotes a flexibility and adaptability in the face of rapid change both inside and outside the work place, that affords the students a better opportunity to play the many roles in life outside of the work place. I don't think we educators are what someone might call value neutral however we delude ourselves into thinking otherwise. Like it or not, it seems so obvious to me that society's future citizens, not just its future work force, is being groomed in our educational institutions. Wasn't it Pericles to said something to the effect: as people are educated so they shall live and lead.
Education, then, should go beyond the narrow confines of subject matter and vocational skills. It's the communication of a basic set of personal and social values which include: understanding that life is teamwork and thus learning how to work together; learning how to work through miscommunications and the conflicts that arise from individuality and diversity; learning how to acquire a love for excellence; learning a tolerance for others; acquiring a commitment to each other and to the dignity of all; developing a love of learning, commitment to free inquiry, devotion to free expression.
It should, therefore, instil in all students genuine, loving, lifelong eagerness to learn, flexibility across fields, love for their chosen lives. It should foster a life of continual growth and development. It should encourage and assist students to develop the basic values needed for learning and living: self-discipline, self-confidence, self-worth, perseverance, responsibility, pursuit of excellence, emotional courage, intellectual honesty, humility, compassion for others.
This may not be what the public pays us or thinks it pays us to do. This may not be what we think we get paid to do. This may not even be what the public wants. It certainly isn't what my student wants. But, we must, forcefully argue that we must require students throughout their educational experience to learn about and reflect on people, places, ideas and things with which they are unfamiliar, which have no obvious technical, scientific, or vocational value, but which are an essential part of living. This is what I think my student needs and should get. This is what I think the public needs and should get. This is what I think I really get paid to do.
Make it a good day. --Louis-- Louis Schmier (912-333-5947) firstname.lastname@example.org Department of History /~\ /\ /\ Valdosta State University /^\ / \ / /~ \ /~\__/\ Valdosta, Georgia 31698 / \__/ \/ / /\ /~ \ /\/\-/ /^\___\______\_______/__/_______/^\ -_~ / "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\ _ _ / don't practice on mole hills" -\____