What Is the Purpose of a University Education?

I just read an interesting New Yorker article about the history and future of the university education, particularly in America: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2011/06/06/110606crat_atlarge_menand?currentPage=all

What I found most interesting about it were the three theories of education people have. Which one(s) do you prefer?

3. University is for job training.

This is the opinion of most university students, who are always asking about what jobs they can get with this or that major, and who ask questions like "why do I have to learn this?" What is interesting to me is that few people actually have jobs that are directly related to their majors, and people tend to switch jobs every two years. Needless to say, I'm not a fan of theory 3.

2. University is to give you the kind of education and general skills that you a) probably won't learn elsewhere, and b) are good for all people to have.

People vote, interact with other people, decide what products to buy, donate (or don't) to charities they think are valuable (or not), and raise children. To do these things well, they need certain mental capacities, especially of critical thinking, comprehension, and communication. Otherwise, we are unlikely to get the kind of society that we value. The hope is that university helps people with these skills. Whether or not they do is questionable (see the article). And it's certainly true that many students don't want these skills. People who like theory 2 (I'm one of them) think that we need to force students to learn certain things even though they don't want to. Yes, I'm saying that the establishment knows what students need more than students do.*

1. University is there to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Some students are alarmed to hear that some people, professors included, see university as a big mental competence test, designed to weed out the inferior students and reward the competent students with failing, grades, graduation, accolades, etc. According to this theory, university's job is to communicate to the outside world (primarily the workforce) student quality. I would hope that no professor believes only in theory 1, because it implies that it doesn't matter what tasks the students are given, so long as they differentiate the smart from the not smart. If this is the only thing university is for, there are much, much cheaper ways to do it.

Personally, I mostly believe in theory 2 and believe a bit in theory 3. I believe in theory 1 only for certain majors. As a teacher, the goals of 2 and 1 are sometimes in conflict. For example, I am happy to help students with difficult assignments or concepts, but if I'm holding their hand too much, perhaps they don't deserve the grade they get.

Note that this entry is all about the education part of university. The function of the university regarding the education/research balance is completely separate, and just as interesting. Stay tuned.

Pictured: Universit√† di Genova (facolt√† di Lettere) - foto realizzata da Utente Microsoikos. By Microsoikos at it.wikipedia (Transferred from it.wikipedia) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

* Some might counter that the students have a right to the kind of education they want, because they are paying for it. Most students are in public schools, however, and are actually paying only for a fraction of the cost to society to educate them. Thus, even by this reasoning, society has a say in what they are learning.

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Connor said…
I agree with all of them, but only under the influence of the 'ivory tower' complex of our society. 3 and 1 go hand-in-hand in climbing the tower.

3 is there to promise you wealth in a high paying job. It says if you work hard you will be rewarded, even though this is not true for many people. This is initially pushed on you in high-school

3 creates your university identity and then 1 threatens to strip your perceived place of privilege if you don't fit in.

both 3 and 1 together ensures that 2 can only be found at university
Anonymous said…
There's a fourth idea actually that I guess is now seen as naive and luxurious, so as to not even be mentioned in these discussions: that exposure to great minds and souls of the past (which up until at least 1900 was seen as mostly a set of ancient Greeks) would make you a more evolved person with a richer inner life. Which is connected to #2, in that you should be a better citizen as well with all this soul-wealth and wisdom.

But even #2 seems extremely pragmatic compared to this idea, because it assumes that the *content* of an education almost doesn't matter. And in fact this older idea is obviously not tenable - apart from the fact that probably the vast majority of undergraduate programs are not designed to give that kind of enlightenment even in principle (including, for example, my own undergraduate education) it's obvious now that there can be no agreement about a "canon" that students should be marinating in for the short 4 years. Just to give one crude division: white men who have been dead for hundreds of years and had seemingly unlimited freedom to ponder things, versus writers of the 20th and 21st century with much more diverse backgrounds who spent a lot of their intellectual lives trying to untwist the many injustices and illusions of colonialism. And I'm not even thinking outside of europe and north america.

But even still, I think this is why it is worth fighting for the idea of reading as being important, even being encouraged to books that seem difficult from the distant past: for those times when your heart does make connection with one of the great souls, and you can feel yourself grow, a little bit, in wisdom and in aspiration. I would find it hard to let go of that as part of what constitutes and education - and what makes you a grownup. College students can't be forced to have those experiences, but I think universities should have a role in placing the opportunity right in front of them, so that at least some can easily reach for it.
Anonymous said…
- Daniel

By the way, I thought this was a brave and important article that could really reach 17 year olds in a way that all the new york times articles will never:

Well, all three sort of get at the perceptions we have of university. Personally, I'm starting to think that making it easier to get post-secondary education (which is a good thing in the long run) has turned it primarily into a social activity (which is a bad thing in the long run). When I graduated from Carleton, no one had taught me how to do up a budget, use Excel, manage a staff or carry our a business or work plan beyond 4000 words by Friday.

In our post industrial society where the demise of manufacturing, technical and polytechnical skills is putting as a great disadvantage as competitors... do we really need more humanities majors, saddled with student debt? Perhaps the answer isn't reducing student debt, but making the case that the Humanities should be something you only undertake if you're willing to pay for it in the long run.

On that note, if the purpose of university is to acquire certain skills, then perhaps we should rethink the stigma against the "college dropouts" who at the very least are cutting their losses and ideally have learned how to concisely write, argue and think critically, from taking a year or two of classes.

Also, as a librarian, I recall a line from Good Will Hunting in which the protagonist berates someone for spending 50,000 dollars on a college education for knowledge that he could have accumulated by racking up about 5 dollars in late fees from a library (And yes, Academic Libraries serve the communities they exist in and sometimes lend as well if the an off-campus borrowing arrangement is in place).

In closing (glibby) I think Jeff Blackman said it best in a poem:

"University is a place where we go to complain about how rich and white we are."

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