STEM vs. Liberal Education a False Choice

This is college admissions decision season — a time when many young people have traditionally looked forward to an educational experience quite different from what they had (sometimes just endured) in high school. The days of checking off boxes to prove their worthiness to some future gatekeepers would be over. In college there might be requirements, but there would also be much more freedom, much more relevance, and much more intellectual excitement.

But the discourse about colleges and universities today is undermining these hopeful expectations. Everywhere one looks, from government statistics on earnings after graduation to a bevy of rankings that purport to show how to monetize your choice of major, the message to students is to think of their undergraduate years as an economic investment that had better produce a substantial and quick return.

There are good reasons for this. One is the scourge of student indebtedness. When students graduate with mountains of debt, especially from shady institutions graduating a small percentage of those who enroll, they can fall into a vicious cycle of poor choices and ever more limited horizons. They are collateral damage in a world of rising tuition. While the wealthiest families have been benefiting from enormous tax breaks, many states have dis-invested in public universities, putting great pressure on these institutions to collect tuition dollars. Middle-class and low-income students often borrow those dollars to pay the bills. And the bills grow ever greater as colleges raise tuition in part to meet the demands of rich families for campus amenities so that their children can live in the style to which they have grown accustomed.

But even students without the pressure of loans are being encouraged to turn away from “college as exploration” and toward “college as training.” They hear that in today’s fast-paced, competitive world, one can no longer afford to try different fields that might improve one’s ability to interpret cultural artifacts or analyze social dynamics. Learning through the arts, one of the most powerful ways to tap into one’s capacities for innovation is often dismissed as an unaffordable luxury.

Parents, pundits and politicians join in the chorus warning students not to miss the economic boat. Study science, technology, engineering and mathematics, they chant, or else you will have few opportunities. Other subjects will leave you a “loser” in our not-so-brave new world of brutal change. College, they insist, should be the place where you conform and learn to swim with this tide.

As president of a university dedicated to broad, liberal education, I both deplore the new conformity and welcome an increased emphasis on STEM fields. I’ve been delighted to see mathematics and neuroscience among our fastest growing majors, have supported students from under-represented groups who are trying to thrive in STEM fields, and have started an initiative to integrate design and engineering into our liberal arts curriculum.

Choosing to study a STEM field should be a choice for creativity not conformity. There is nothing narrow about an authentic education in the sciences. Indeed, scientific research is a model for the American tradition of liberal education because of the creative nature of its inquiries, not just the truth-value of its results. As in other disciplines (like music and foreign languages), much basic learning is required, but science is not mere instrumental training; memorizing formulae isn’t thinking like a scientist. On our campus, some of the most innovative, exploratory work is being done by students studying human-machine interactions, using computer science to manipulate moving images to tell better stories, and exploring intersections of environmental science with economics and performance art.

Fears of being crushed by debt or of falling off the economic ladder are pressuring students to conform, and we must find ways to counteract these pressures or we risk undermining our scientific productivity as well as our broad cultural creativity.

I’ve heard it said that students today opt for two fields of study, one for their parents and one for themselves. Examples abound of undergrads focusing on: economics and English; math and art; biology and theater. But we make a mistake in placing too much emphasis on the bifurcation. Many students are connecting these seemingly disparate fields, not just holding them as separate interests. And they are finding that many employers want them to develop these connections further. Exploration and innovation are not fenced in by disciplines and majors. Students who develop habits of mind that allow them to develop connections that others haven’t seen will be creating the opportunities of the future.

When Thomas Jefferson was thinking through a new, American model of higher education, it was crucial for him that students not think they already knew at the beginning of their studies where they would end up when it was time for graduation. For him, and for all those who have followed in the path of liberal education in this country, education was exploration – and you would only make important discoveries if you were open to unexpected possibilities. About a century later W.E.B. Du Bois argued that a broad education was a form of empowerment not just apprenticeship. Both men understood that the sciences, along with the humanities, arts and social sciences had vast, integrative possibilities.

This integrative tradition of pragmatic American liberal education must be protected. We must not over-react to fears of being left behind. Yes, ours is a merciless economy characterized by deep economic inequality, but that inequality must not be accepted as a given; the skills of citizenship acquired through liberal learning can be used to push back against it. We must cultivate this tradition of learning not only because it is has served us well for so long, but because it can vitalize our economy, lead to an engaged citizenry and create a culture characterized by connectivity and creativity.

Cross-posted with Washington Post and the Huffington Post

Declaring Our Independence Through Education

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

Supreme Court Decision Undermines Education and Opportunity

I just posted this on HuffingtonPost and thought it would also be relevant to many in the Wesleyan community.

 

Ever since the founding of this country, we have recognized that education is indispensable to our vision of a democratic society. All men may be created equal in the abstract, but education provides people concrete opportunities to overcome real circumstances of poverty or oppression. Thomas Jefferson argued that the talented poor should be educated at public expense so that inherited wealth would not doom us to rule by an “unnatural aristocracy” of wealth. As I describe in Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, a few years after Jefferson’s death, African American shopkeeper David Walker penned a blistering manifesto pointing out that “the bare name of educating the coloured people, scares our cruel oppressors almost to death.” Some years later the young slave Frederick Douglass received a “new and special revelation,” namely, that learning “unfits” a person for being a slave.

Promoting access to a high-quality education has been key to turning the American rhetoric of equality into genuine opportunity. And throughout our history elites threatened by equality, or just by social mobility, have often joined together to block access for groups striving to improve their prospects in life. In the 20th century, policies were enacted to keep immigrants out of universities and to limit the number of Jews who enrolled. And in 2006, the citizens of Michigan passed an amendment to the state constitution banning consideration of race at their universities, undermining opportunity for minorities in the state.

This week the Supreme Court voted to uphold the rights of these citizens to forbid race-sensitive admissions policies. Previous Court decisions had allowed schools to consider race among other factors, but this judgment affirms the voters’ right to overrule university policies. Under the guise of democracy and supporting the political process, the Court has allowed States to close off opportunities for those who would benefit from them the most.

As Justice Sotomayor argued in her dissent, in Michigan you can now lobby those who control admissions to pay more attention to how many alumni relatives applicants have, and you can urge the deans to recognize how much money these relatives might give the school after applicants graduate. But you can no longer successfully advocate making the universities in Michigan more racially diverse — even if the governing boards recognized that a more diverse campus benefits everyone on campus.

Residential colleges and universities have for many years emphasized creating a diverse student body because we believe this results in a deeper educational experience. In the late 1960s many schools steered away from cultivated homogeneity and toward creating a campus community in which people can learn from their differences while forming new modes of commonality. This had nothing to do with what would later be called political correctness or even identity politics. It had to do with preparing students to become lifelong learners who could navigate in and contribute to a heterogeneous world after graduation.

At residential universities, homogeneity in the student body undermines our mission of helping students develop personal autonomy within a dynamic community. That’s why we are eager to welcome students from various parts of the United States and the rest of the world to our campuses. That’s why we ask our donors to support robust financial aid programs so as to ensure that our students come from a variety of economic backgrounds. A “dynamic community” is one in which members have to navigate difference — and racial and ethnic differences are certainly parts of the mix. All the students we admit have intellectual capacity, but we also want them to have different sorts of capacities. Their interests, modes of learning, and perspectives on the world should be sufficiently different from one another so as to promote active learning in and outside the classroom.

Creating a racially diverse campus is in the interest of all students, and it offers those from racial minorities opportunities that have historically been denied them. That’s why governing boards and admissions deans have crafted policies to find students from under-represented groups for whom a strong education will have a transformative, even liberating effect. Education, as Douglass said, makes you unfit for slavery.

The federal government has often had to step in to ensure that states provide access to political and economic opportunity. As Justice Sotomayor put it in her dissent, in the past the court ruled that the equal protection clause of the Constitution, “guarantees that the majority may not win by stacking the political process against minority groups permanently, forcing the minority alone to surmount unique obstacles in pursuit of its goals — here, educational diversity that cannot reasonably be accomplished through race-neutral measures.”

But this week’s ruling allows states to forbid university officials from considering race when determining access to higher education. When seen in the context of recent decisions undermining voting rights, it’s hard not to think that we are witnessing elites, “scared almost to death,” holding onto their privileges by limiting access to social mobility and economic opportunity.

Jefferson’s “unnatural aristocracy” is working hard to increase its advantages, but at universities we must recognize our responsibility to provide real opportunity to those groups who historically have been most marginalized. University admissions programs are not the place to promote partisan visions of social justice, but they are the place to produce the most dynamic and profound learning environments.

It would be an enormous step backward to force our admissions offices to retreat to a homogeneity that stifles creative, broad-based education. We must find ways to protect the diversity (racial, economic, cultural) that has become absolutely crucial to the dynamism of our universities, and to lives of learning and opportunity.