Tuesday, July 12, 2011

in pursuit of meaningful education

today's topic has nothing in particular to do with robots or religion or video games or other. it's about education.

in the U.S., we've seen blistering attacks on college education over the past two or three decades, from decimated public funding to the end of a meaningful education for students, which has been replaced by (poor) vocational training. instead of teaching students how to think about the world they occupy, our colleges and universities have increasingly turned toward teaching students that they should just do their jobs (and poorly at that, as students, especially in business schools, now think they don't have to work anymore).

once upon a time, state governments actually paid for their constituents to attend college; nowadays they resist doing so. see this article about reduced funding in washington, for example, or this article about reductions at my undergraduate alma mater, the university of texas. reductions in public funding mean additional pressures on faculty to raise money, on alumni to give money, and on colleges to monetize their educations and market themselves as places that lead to jobs.

colleges and universities are not places that lead to jobs. or, at least, they shouldn't be. they are places where we grow as people, becoming better citizens. acquiring skills in reading, writing and critical thinking should further that goal, first and foremost. secondarily, they are useful for jobs. in fact, for most jobs, they're about the only important skills. the things a student learns in business school are largely irrelevant without them. sadly, the marketing of school tends to discount the very classes where reading, writing, and critical thinking are learned, thereby ensuring that many of today's college graduates leave school with no meaningful ability to contribute to their workplaces or their country.

of course, in a world where education has been divorced from citizenship and meaningful public life, institutions like academic freedom and tenure appear irrelevant (leading to ongoing fights about them). all too many commentators (most, though not all) on the right side of the political spectrum now fight vigorously against tenure as they seek to produce a cadre of mechanical workers.

it is not surprising, of course, that when academic freedom comes under attack, so too is freedom. nowadays, all you have to do is label your restriction of rights a "patriot act" and you can rest assured that people will lack the ability or the inclination to resist. tenure is important but it is important not just to protect intellectual inquiry from political attacks but also as a reminder that colleges are not and should not be business schools (though MBA and MPA programs and also accounting programs certainly have a place in them). going to college is not about getting a job; it's' about becoming a real citizen. you can do that without college, but it's easier with guidance than without it. let's restore our colleges and universities to their mission of learning. let's fund them publicly and give students a chance to learn enough that they will be truly productive in our society.

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