Just tell me one thing. Will my daughter have a job and not be moving back home after she graduates from your university?
That’s what a dad asked me at a Wesleyan University information session caught on film for the recent higher-education documentary Ivory Tower. Traditionally, a college degree has been a marker of independence as graduates embrace the opportunity to stand upon their own two feet, but today those receiving degrees are often riddled with debt and with doubt. When these graduates wind up back in their parents’ basements, when they feel clueless about how to enter a challenging job market, when they have no idea how to convert their classroom experience into action in the world, they exemplify the failure of the American promise that education makes you free and self-reliant. We in higher education must renew that promise by demonstrating how pragmatic liberal education provides students with greater independence and capacity for productive work well beyond graduation day.
As I show in Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, this promise has been part of our history since the earliest days of the republic. It would be hard to find an American figure more devoted to a broad, liberal education than the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson. He argued that the health of a republic depends on the education of its citizens because only an educated citizenry can push back against the tyranny of the powerful. His “frenemy” John Adams maintained that citizens of all walks of life deserve to learn the principles of freedom:
“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people, and must be willing to bear the expenses of it.”
Although our nation’s commitment to education runs deep, we’ve also long been suspicious about what those kids were really learning. Ben Franklin was pretty sure that some of the guys up at Harvard were largely being schooled in cultivated condescension, and populist criticism of higher ed today rightly condemns the amenities arm race through which supposedly rigorous schools pander to the worst instincts for luxury, partying and callousness. Colleges may be selling the full spa experience to wanna-be investment bankers, but families are often borrowing heavily only to discover that the college diploma is no sure ticket to economic self-sufficiency.
Another of America’s great prophets of independence is Ralph Waldo Emerson, who gave his celebrated lectures “The American Scholar” and “Self-Reliance” in the mid-1800s. Emerson saw education as a process through which one learned to absorb more of the world while also acquiring abilities to respond productively to it. Higher education should ignite students’ spirit and intelligence: Colleges only serve us well, he wrote:
“When they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and, by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame.”
Setting hearts aflame for Emerson didn’t just mean creating a sense of inner transformation – he was committed to the idea that a liberal education made you more effective beyond the university. Becoming more effective in the work you have chosen was at the core of what he called self-reliance. The opposite of self-reliance for Emerson was conformity, a pervasive force in his time as it is in ours.
Hoping to capitalize on the anxieties of parents and students, many today are calling for a more vocational style of learning. Unfortunately, demands for a more efficient, practical college education are likely to lead to the opposite: men and women who are trained for yesterday’s problems and yesterday’s jobs, men and women who have not reflected on their own lives in ways that allow them to tap into their capacities for innovation and for making meaning out of their experience. Under the guise of “practicality” we are really hearing calls for conformity, calls for conventional thinking that will impoverish our economic, cultural and personal lives.
Some claim that in today’s economy we should track students earlier into specific fields for which they seem to have aptitude. This runs counter to the American tradition of liberal education. From the Revolutionary War through current debates about the worth of college, American thinkers have emphasized the ways that broad, pragmatic learning addresses the whole person, allowing individuals greater freedom and an expanded range of choices. Liberal education in this tradition means developing independence of mind and habits of critical and creative thinking that last a lifetime.
On this July 4 we should dedicate ourselves to recovering the American promise that education should increase our independence. Since the founding of this country, education has been closely tied to self-reliance, to declaring one’s independence through one’s ability to think for oneself and creatively contribute to society. In a quickly shifting economic landscape, it is understandable that some parents and pundits are calling for streamlined learning to train people quickly. But gearing education only to meeting current economic conditions is a ticket to conformity — and also to economic and cultural mediocrity. We need intellectual cross training of the whole person — not nano-degrees in commercial codes and tactics (no matter how digital) sure soon to become obsolete.
The ability to shape change and seek opportunity has never been more valuable than it is today. If we want to push back against inequality and enhance the vitality of our culture and economy, if we truly want to declare our independence, we need to support greater access to pragmatic liberal education.
cross-posted with HuffingtonPost