Researchers determine that sustainability is now a science; Occupy Wall Street's sustainability committee plays house; Harvard looks to hire someone who can "cultivate an understanding of food"; and a debate asks whether the campus sustainability movement detracts from the better purposes of higher education.
Duke Cheston writes about a controversy in North Carolina — should the UNC system keep expanding into the field of health care? It has become common for higher ed leaders here (and elsewhere) to proclaim that it’s part of the university’s mission to do all kinds of things besides education, such as helping the economy grow, helping protect the environment, helping to improve the health of the people, helping to foster multicultural understanding, and so on. Perhaps it would be better if UNC stuck to its educational knitting.
At the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog, NAS president Peter Wood shares some insights about what has been lost in higher education:
I refer to the slow disappearance of the sense that higher education has anything genuinely “higher” about it. The notion that the academy should distinguish most important knowledge from the vast realm of knowable stuff somehow began to flicker out—when? The fifties? The sixties? As we lost the confidence to make that distinction, the college curriculum lost its essential shape. In a way, everything became an elective, even if some of the courses were still required.
Peter Wood takes on this question in "Nouveau Relativism in Academe":
What is the proper status of “opinion” in the university, as opposed to fact, established knowledge, theory, and belief? Simply listing these words suggests layers of complication. Higher education necessarily involves all these modes of knowing or thinking-you-know, and they are often tangled together. Still, we usually acknowledge a distinction. Opinions are what we hold when we cannot be sure. It isn’t a matter of opinion that 2 + 2 = 4. It is a matter of opinion that King Lear is a more profound play than Hamlet. We get into trouble when we confuse these matters. And we are courting trouble when we exaggerate the provisional respect due to other people’s opinions and thereby lose sight of some more fundamental goals of liberal education. Ideally, we teach students how to pursue truth, and where truth itself is unobtainable, to exercise the kind of discernment that separates the better-grounded views from the others.
In this week's Pope Center Clarion Call, I review Higher Education? by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus. The book has been getting a great deal of attention -- and deserves it. To put the authors' case in a nutshell, college and university education in the U.S. (with a few exceptions) costs much more than it needs to and delivers much less education than it should. It's a splendid deal for administrators and tenured professors, but bad for the rest of us who foot the bills and especially the students who get little education of lasting value. Do we have the beginnings of a left-right convergence here? The critique Hacker and Dreifus give echoes themes familiar to those who have read Charles Murray and Thomas Sowell. (In fact, Sowell blasts Hacker's book Money in his Intellectuals and Society, but they're in agreement on the waste and folly of our higher ed system.)
Last week an NAS member, a professor at the University of Southern Indiana we'll call Professor Smith, brought to our attention a new “Center for Social Justice” at the university. He asked for advice on how to mitigate the adverse effects of such a center. I replied: Dear Professor Smith, Thank you for your inquiry last week about the recently created “Center for Social Justice” at the University of Southern Indiana. I agree that it sounds like another instance of political advocacy masquerading as academic inquiry. Centers such as this are in vogue. After getting your email Ashley Thorne and I started doing some checking and included some comments on these centers in an article we posted to the NAS website last week, “Stories We’re Watching.” In that article we noted some of the other colleges and universities that have similar centers. Your deeper question is what can you do about this? Certainly there is no silver bullet. But these centers are very dependent on a handful of conditions that can be challenged. The conditions they depend on include:
You can challenge any of these things. A successful challenge must always be based on the facts. So the first thing I suggest is that you and anyone else you can find who is interested just begin to assemble a well-organized file of what the Center for Social Justice publishes, says, and does. This doesn’t require any skullduggery—and in fact shouldn’t. the publicly available stuff will be more than adequate. That’s because the Center itself will assume until it learns otherwise that it can do and say whatever it wants. Think of ACORN before Breitbart.
Given the problems facing higher education today, this speech on the purpose of college delivered by Justice Wendell Phillips Stafford at the Sesqui-Centennial of Dartmouth College in 1919 seems as timely as ever. Here is an excerpt:
(The spirit of college) has shown itself in men who never knew how the inside of a college looked. When Lincoln jotted down the main facts of his life for the Congressional Directory, he wrote: "Education defective." And yet, tried by the test we are applying now, he was college-bred. The question is not, whether you studied Euclid in a classroom or stretched out on the counter of a country store. The question is, whether you mastered it. Lincoln did. And the thews and sinews of his mind, which he developed so, stood by him in the day when he threw Douglas down. John Keats was as innocent of the Greek language as the new curriculum assumes all men should be; yet out of some stray book on mythology the " miserable apprentice to an apothecary " contrived to draw into his soul the very spirit of Hellenic art, until he left us poems which Hellenists declare to be more Grecian than the Greek. He, too, was college-bred, as we now mean it, for he was impelled by that determination to subdue and fructify his powers, with the aid of all the past has left us, until they yielded something glorious and undying for his fellow men. His spirit was not the spirit of the dove, but of the eagle: "My spirit is too weak! Mortality Weighs heavily on me, like unwilling sleep; And each imagined pinnacle and steep Of godlike hardship tells me I must die, Like a sick eagle looking at the sky." If I am right, there lie wrapt up in this determination those three aims: (1) to discipline one's powers and make them fruitful; (2) in order to accomplish this, to make use of all that men have gained before us; and (3) to devote these powers and acquisitions to the common weal. The advantage the college has is this: that here the determined spirit finds the tool-shop and the arsenal. That spirit itself the college can foster and encourage but cannot create. It can and does lay open to its use the weapons and the tools. It can and does teach, in a fair, general way, what men thus far have done. It leads the newcomer to the point where they left off, and says: "Begin here, if you would not waste your time. This territory has been conquered. Go forth from this frontier." It also shows the worker of the present day what other men are doing. It brings him into touch with them, that he may put his effort forth where it will tell the most."
Stafford's entire text can be found here.
Maurice O'Sullivan has an excellent article in the latest issue of Change magazine, (subscription required), on the shortfalls of the current liberal education movement. He argues that the liberal-education movement rests upon several myths, such as a spurious belief that a narrow focus on processes such as "critical thinking" can somehow take the place of the rich content found in the traditional liberal-arts curriculum. Sullivan writes:
For those of us who believe that success in business and the professions will come relatively easily to students who have been well prepared to engage in all the dialogues of life--an engagement that requires a broad range of historical and contemporary knowledge; the ability to reflect deeply on that knowledge and to evaluate it critically; and the ability to present informed opinions orally and in writing in a clear, powerful, and sophisticated way--the relentless movement toward narrower and narrower career education is disconcerting. And claiming that the smattering of knowledge provided by a liberal education component offers an adequate balance to narrow majors seems both disingenuous and dangerous.
Readers unfamiliar with the current state of the liberal-education movement might also want to browse through this issue of the Association of American Colleges and Universities' publication Peer Review which, we are told, "illustrates the potential for public health education as a vehicle for liberal learning".