Two Philosophers’ Views on the Point of College

Two Philosophers’ Views on the Point of College


This week, two philosophers—Kwame Anthony Appiah (NYU) in the New York Times Magazine and Gary Gutting (Notre Dame) in The Chronicle of Higher Education—have discussed the point of a college education.

Appiah observes that there are “two distinct visions of higher education contend throughout our classrooms and campuses.”

One is “Utility University,” which

focuses on how college can be useful — to its graduates, to employers and to a globally competitive America….  As college grows more expensive, plenty of people want to know whether they’re getting a good return on their investment.

The other is “Utopia University,” which

centers on what John Stuart Mill called ‘experiments in living,’ aimed at getting students ready for life as free men and women…. Here, college is about building your soul as much as your skills. Students want to think critically about the values that guide them, and they will inevitably want to test out their ideas and ideals in the campus community…. College, in this view, is where you hone the tools for the foundational American project, the pursuit of happiness.

These two visions of college lead to different “metrics for success.”

In the Utility vision, students are consumers; they have needs and desires to be met, at a price they’ll pay. If pleasing the customer is the goal, a tenured faculty member who wants to teach what he or she considers worth teaching can be an inconvenience. Plus, at Utility U., one obvious way to better your ‘‘value proposition’’ is to cut costs…,.

The most reliable predictor of whether students liked a course, it turned out, was their answer to the question ‘‘Did the professor respect you?’’ Customers like to be loved; attentive service makes for good Yelp reviews. But that’s a very different question from, say: How, if at all, did you change through the class? What good, if any, did those changes do you? Did you learn to uncover the ideological or conceptual demons that may be flummoxing your good sense?…

If Utility U. is concerned with value, Utopia U. is concerned with values. The values agenda can involve the content of classes, the nature of campus communities or both… At Utopia U., the aim is to create a safe space, to check your privilege and suspend the prejudices of the larger world, to promote human development and advance moral progress….

Neither Utility U. nor Utopia U. has the full run of any one campus.

Gutting is also concerned with two visions of education, which he describes as a “conflict between liberal education and capitalism” (a good chunk of quotes follow, as the article is currently behind a paywall):

If capitalism alone determines a society’s fundamental values, intellectual culture will be marginalized. But what we have seen is that, in our society, the de facto privileged status of universities as centers of intellectual culture shows that our values are not entirely determined by the capitalist system. That is why we must separate education for instrumental knowledge from education for knowledge for its own sake.

A lot of education is geared toward preparing people for jobs, but Gutting thinks we haven’t worked out how to best use the institutions we have, and that college is wasted if it is understood as general job training.    

Current thinking about education…assumes that college is the natural place to acquire the relevant instrumental knowledge not only for these elite professions but also for the vast majority of good jobs. This leads to the supposition that almost everyone should go to college. But the basis of this belief begins to collapse once we ask how college in fact prepares students for the workplace. For most jobs, it merely provides certain basic intellectual skills: the ability to understand complex instructions, to write and speak clearly and cogently, to evaluate options critically. Earning a college degree shows that you have the moral and social qualities that employers need. You have for a period of time, and with little supervision, deferred to authority, met deadlines, and carried out difficult tasks even if you found them pointless and boring. What better background for most jobs?

Such intellectual and moral/social training, however, does not require studying with experts on Homeric poetry, particle theory, experimental psychology, or Kant. It does not, that is, require the immersion in intellectual culture that a college faculty is designed to provide. So why think that almost everyone should go to college? Because — and here we encounter yet another widely held supposition about education — we believe that college is the only place for most young people to gain the instrumental knowledge they need for good jobs.

This is an odd assumption. Why shouldn’t a good elementary- and high-school education provide the needed instrumental knowledge? What is needed, intellectually, to succeed in most of the “good jobs” in our society? Here’s one plausible and traditional model: a background in literature, art, science, history and politics adequate to read and comprehend the articles in national media; a grounding in precalculus mathematics; an ability to write well-organized and grammatically sound business memos and blog posts; and an intermediate level of competence in a foreign language.

Students with that sort of education would be excellent candidates for most satisfying and well-paying jobs (sometimes with the addition of an M.B.A. or other specialized master’s degree). From the standpoint of employment, high-school graduates with such training would not need a college degree unless they wanted to be accountants or engineers, pursue preprofessional programs leading to law or medical school, or train for doctoral work in science or the humanities. Apart from that, the primary reason for going to college is its intellectual culture.

Of course, many high schools do not provide the needed instrumental education, and we make up the deficit with remedial work in college. This is an enormous waste of resources. In principle, there is no reason why elementary and high schools could not provide the instrumental knowledge that employers require.

He then argues for greater professionalization in and resources for pre-college teaching to turn this from an “in principle” possibility to a reality.

Simply put, the fate of liberal education depends on improving K-12 education. Colleges would then be freed of the burden of educating for the job market. Absent this improvement, colleges will have to compromise their commitment to intellectual culture to take up the instrumental slack from elementary and high schools. Avoiding this disaster requires remaking K-12 teaching as a desirable profession…

We could transfer to K-12 schools the considerable resources that colleges now use to teach students what they should have already learned… A professionalized K-12 faculty can meet the instrumental needs of capitalist enterprises, leaving to college the pursuit of knowledge that makes us happy simply because we have it. In that way, college education would function as a counterforce to capitalism’s materialistic values.

Underlying Gutting’s analysis is a view of what college teaching is about:

But if the object of teaching is not knowledge, what is it? In recent years I’ve taught a seminar to first-year honors students in which we read a wide range of texts, from Plato and Thucydides to Calvino and Nabokov. We have lively discussions that require a thorough knowledge of a given text, and the students write excellent papers that require close readings of particular passages. But I’m sure the half-life of their detailed knowledge is less than a year. The real goal of my teaching, I’ve come to believe, is that my students have close encounters with great writing. If the object of my teaching were knowledge, then my efforts would be mostly in vain. My actions are successful only if their object is helping students have certain experiences: intellectual, emotional, aesthetic, even moral experiences of reading, discussing, and writing about classic works. 

What’s the value of such experiences? They make students aware of new possibilities for intellectual and aesthetic fulfillment — enjoyment or, perhaps better, happiness. They may not enjoy every book we read, but they enjoy some of them and discover that — and how — this sort of thing (Greek philosophy, modernist literature) can bring them happiness. They may never again exploit the possibility, but it will remain part of their lives, something that may start to bud again when they see a review of a new translation of Homer or a biography of T.S. Eliot, or when Tartuffe or The Seagull is playing at a local theater.

College education introduces students to our intellectual culture mainly through a proliferation of such possibilities: the beauty of mathematical discovery, the thrill of scientific understanding, the fascination of historical narrative, the mystery of theological speculation. We should judge teaching first by the enduring excitement it generates, not by the amount of knowledge it passes on. Knowledge — or, better, understanding — may emerge as students sustain and deepen their initial encounters and eventually come to grasp something substantial about Sophocles or Beckett. But such understanding is a later arrival, flaring up in the fullness of time from the sparks that good teachers plant in their students’ souls.

(image: detail of “Mural” (2009) by Julie Mehretu)

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