Thoughts on the University and the Value of Education: A (Belated) Response to Fr. Himes

Last week in the Education Life section of the New York Times, Laura Pappano wrote on the continuing growth of the master’s degree. According to her interviewees, the former “consolation prize for failing to finish a Ph.D.” has in fact become the new entry-level degree for many jobs in the US. As a result, much of the growth in master’s degree programs in recent years has been for practical, “skill-based” masters as opposed to more scholarly masters. As a result, Pappano asks “What’s happening to academic reflection? Must knowledge be demonstrable to be valuable?”

Abstracting somewhat form the trends Pappano identifies, she raises an excellent question: what makes an education valuable? Last year at a colloquium in our department, Fr. Michael Himes gave a paper that, in a certain way, responds to this question (one version of that talk can be found here). In his paper, Fr. Himes took Cardinal Newman’s work on The Idea of the University as a springboard for defending a liberal arts education. Newman claimed that a university should teach “universal knowledge” and should produce “gentlemen” (and, presumably, gentlewomen). In teaching universal knowledge, universities should strive to offer training to its students in the widest possible range of fields, including methods, history, and applications thereof, such that students have both breadth and depth. Gentlemen and women should, most basically, “never inflict pain,” but more broadly should be intelligent, generous in spirit, insightful, humble, and tolerant in their engagement with others.

The purpose of this education, according to Himes, is not the production of economically productive citizens, but of well-rounded, intelligent, thoughtful gentlepersons. That these young participants in universal knowledge might also go on to get jobs and pay taxes and so forth might and probably should be the case, but this should not be the purpose of their education. Indeed, Fr. Himes paper opens with a response to President Obama’s claim in his 2009 State of the Union speech that “it is the responsibility of every citizen to participate in” the US higher education system because “three-quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require more than a high school diploma. And yet, just over half of our citizens have that level of education. We have one of the highest high school dropout rates of any industrialized nation. And half of the students who begin college never finish.” Fr. Himes emphatically states that he agrees with the President’s claim about the importance of higher education, but he disagrees that the reason for this importance is the risk of “economic decline.”

So it seems that we have two competing perspectives on the value of an education. Blessed Cardinal Newman and Fr. Himes on the side of well-rounded gentlepersons, and President Obama and many of the employers Pappano cites on the side of skill-development and marketability. As a Catholic theologian, it’s tempting for me at this point to say “it’s both-and” and call it a day, but I have at least two further points I’d like to consider.

First, one factor Newman didn’t really have to contend with (and that I think Fr. Himes glosses over) is the cost of higher education – and not just master’s degrees. In that colloquium mentioned above, Fr. Himes further described the university, not as the grounds or the buildings or the awards received, but as an ongoing conversation among the members of the university’s community. Citing David Tracy’s description of conversation, which “occurs only when the individual conversation partners move past self-consciousness and self-aggrandizement into joint reflection upon the subject matter of the conversation,” Himes claims that giving students the opportunity to experience and participate in this genuine conversation is “much more precious than a leg up the employment ladder.” But to take part in that conversation at Boston College costs a total of around $50,000 a year. Yes, BC is reasonably good about need-based financial aid, but that not only often includes loans that must be repaid but also doesn’t necessarily cover the full cost. Becoming a well-rounded gentleperson at the university that employs Fr. Himes can be quite expensive, making it a risky venture if a graduating well-rounded gentleperson does not also leave with an improved chance of attaining gainful employment.

Second, in the first chapter of his Analogical Imagination, David Tracy describes three different publics. Focusing here on the first public, the wider society, Tracy argues that it has three “realms” within it:

    * The techno-economic realm, which is responsible for the organization and allocation of goods and services. This realm is marked by the use of instrumental reason, which seeks ever more efficient ways of achieving pre-determined ends.
    * The realm of polity, in which the citizenry reflects not only on the just use of power, but also what that “justice” is. This realm is marked by practical reason, which reflects ethically on the goals of society.
    * The realm of culture, consisting mainly of art and religion, in which people reflect on the symbolic expressions of meaning and value for both individuals and groups. This realm is marked by symbolic reflection, which is concerned with the meaning, value, and truth that sustains the society’s goals.

In laying out this public, Tracy sees a twin danger:

    (A) It is possible that the successes of instrumental reason in determining means to achieve ends will lead for the broader use of instrumental reason in determining those ends and the broader values of a society – the good is whatever works, and
    (B) that the citizenry of society seems to have accepted that we can continue “demanding professional competence in every major area of our communal lives except value issues” without any consequences. Indeed, he notes that art and religion, and the realm of culture more broadly, are areas that many believe they are “free to be ignorant,” thus “evicting the symbolic resources” of culture from the broader social conversation.

Bringing these points together, it seems to me that the goal of graduating well-rounded gentlepersons trained in universal knowledge is at best an intermediate goal of the liberal arts education. Indeed, I suspect that universities understand themselves to be improving the common good by educating their students. The common good could be construed in a limited, instrumental way that is measured by the economic statistics of a society, but I suspect any robust defensible sense of the common good would look more at the type of justice achieved for the broadest swatch of its citizenry. By graduating gentlepersons who also have a leg up the employment ladder, the university is more likely to seed well-rounded, intelligent, and thoughtful men and women throughout society. Doing so increases the possibility that a greater proportion of people who go into techno-economic work will also be profoundly versed in the questions and conversations of polity and culture. Indeed, perhaps what would be most precious about the liberal arts education is not the chance for students to participate in a wonderful conversation while in college, but to carry that conversation forward into their livelihoods as a leavening at many levels of society.

7 replies »

  1. Steve you’ve touched on a number of questions I’ve been thinking about lately.

    With regard to financing education I wonder how the personal/familial wealth of the average college student in Newman’s days compares to our own. I see students who are working constantly to finance their college years not only at jobs on campus (where one might expect some flexibility and support for the goals of liberal arts education) but also off-campus at second or third shift manufacturing/service jobs. Given these circumstances (our graduates will not by and large be free to be gentlepersons of leisure) how can we help students engage in the questions of liberal arts education while living alongside the more utilitarian functions of education?

    I also appreciate what you laid out from Tracy. Given its enormous influence on our day to day lives, leavening for the techno-economic realm is an important vocation, and one we could be teaching our students to embrace.

    If students’ education thoughtfully engages in conversation between polity/culture and professional knowledge/practice then it seems to me all the more likely that such a conversation will continue in their working lives as well.

    • Thanks for your comment Amanda…like HoyaSaxa77 below, you rightly raise the issue of wealth and access to education. I think this is something that Fr. Himes misses in his analysis. Yes, there are scholarships and grants and loans that can help the underprivileged get the kind of education he lauds, but that doesn’t mean that newly formed gentleperson has anything to fall back on post-graduation.

      Focusing on the two possible roles of education I talked about above, i recognize that tying them together risks undermining the effect of the “well-rounded” goal. Maybe those in such education will be seduced by the need and desire for a job and let go of any interest in their newfound “universal knowledge.” But I think it’s better such people get the education and decide on their own what to do with it. I have trouble imagining there’s anyone out there today that is either on the road to college or is parenting someone on that road that doesn’t assume that, regardless of the type of education that student receives (re: the typology below), that student will have a better chance at a job afterward.

  2. I would suggest that it is worth considering the unarticulated (and usually unexamined) first premise of these academic pieces on the role of a university, viz. that there IS one, univocal vocation to which all institutions of higher education (around the world? in the United States?) ought to aspire.

    At the risk of belaboring what may seem obvious… In the decades since Newman first published his own views, the landscape of higher education has evolved dramatically. The “name brand” colleges in this country are no longer glorified academies where relatively affluent young (white) males go to study the trivium and quadrivium. The reason that the OSS and CIA could recruit history majors from Yale was that, back then, the ability to think critically and make rapid analytical assessments of complicated situations was something nearly every young man in the old stone halls of the Ivy League would have been capable of, based on the structure of curriculum.

    And while there will always be a place for intelligent liberal arts graduates who can piece together multi-faceted puzzles with both alacrity and accuracy, today’s CIA is more apt to recruit a mathematician from MIT who might help break encryptions on foreign cables.

    Nearly ever school in the upper tier of national college rankings* is moving towards the so-called Harvard-Berkeley Model, wherein faculty are expected to produce original research published in top journals, while the majority of their responsibility vis-a-vis undergraduate instruction is delegated to a team of graduate student assistants. Moreover, these institutions are probably more aptly described as offering “pre-professional” training (be it in chemical engineering, computer science, or international finance) than forming young adults for citizenship and “life success.”

    *One saving grace of the otherwise awful and horribly misleading USNews Rankings is that it attempts to distinguish between national research universities like Harvard, Michigan, and UCLA and liberal arts colleges like Williams, Oberlin, and Occidental.

    Perhaps there are multiple vocations for institutions of higher ed in the contemporary landscape. I’d suggest that there are at least the following:

    1) Pre-Professional/Research Universities – The vocation of these schools is to prepare undergraduates for either employment or advanced degrees in a particular field, e.g. aerospace engineering, public health, or molecular biology. The curriculum includes very few general education requirements from liberal arts fields, and may in fact not require its math/science students to take any courses in philosophy, psychology, or sociology. These schools generally have large introductory lectures followed by increasingly more advanced sub-topics and labs with fewer students; and upperclassmen are expected to participate in the research of faculty in their department. They will also boast large graduate populations vis-a-vis undergraduate enrollment.
    Examples: Harvard, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, UChicago, Michigan, UCLA

    2) Liberal Arts Colleges – The vocation of these schools is to form undergraduates in the traditional subjects of the trivium and quadrivium, emphasizing the ability to think critically and identify connections and common themes among disparate disciplines and topics. These schools require students to take a broad core curriculum, and though there may be math/science/pre-professional majors, even they will receive significant exposure to the humanities. Introductory courses will generally have fewer than 50 students, more advanced seminars may well be in the single digits, and individual studies with faculty will not be uncommon. There will be comparatively few courses wherein a graduate student is the primary instructor, and the graduate student population will be relatively small or non-existent.
    Examples: Amherst, Swarthmore, Villanova, Loyola (MD), Bucknell, Macalester, Holy Cross, Pomona.

    3) Local, Public Universities/Community Colleges – The vocation of these schools is to provide pre-professional training in a particular area (nursing, education, accounting) with the stated purpose of “getting a job” upon completion of degree program. The curriculum is largely similar to that of Type (1) institutions without the same emphasis on research and a much lower percentage of graduates pursuing advanced degrees in their respective field.
    Examples: Virginia Commonwealth University, Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, Eastern Michigan University, California State University at Bakersfield, University of Texas at El Paso, Florida Atlantic University

    4) Trade Schools/Technical Colleges – The vocation of these schools is to provide pre-professional training in a particular field, with the stated purpose of “getting a job” in that specific field following completion of a degree program. The curriculum requires few if any liberal arts courses and focuses instead on the acquisition of skills necessary to gain employment and accreditation in medical record keeping, pharmacy technician, food service, computer repair, auto maintenance, etc.
    Examples: ITT Technical Institute, DeVry University, Westwood College, The Art Institute, Culinary Institute of America

    Disclaimer: Of course there are hybrid schools. (Many Jesuit schools, e.g. Georgetown, Marquette, Boston College, represent a particularly difficult classification, inasmuch as they straddle Type 1 and Type 2.)

    I don’t think Dartmouth, Colgate, UNC, Grove City, Austin Peay, and the Colorado School of Mines have anything approaching a singular “role,” nor do I think they ought to. I don’t believe the simplistic reduction of either for the purpose of (1) getting a job in a field or (2) being formed as an adult citizen to think critically does justice to the spectrum of modern institutional vocations in higher ed.

    • Thanks for your comment, HoyaSaxa77; you raise several important and interesting points. I like the typologies you outline for different missions in higher ed, particularly as they pertain to education in the US. You are certainly correct that a “simplistic reduction” of all forms of education to an alleged dichotomy is problematic.

      I disagree, however, with your underlying point that many or even most of those engaged in this conversation have facilely assumed that all education is or should be liberal arts education. For example, Himes explicitly interprets Newman within the tradition of liberal arts, and I think I have been clear in the post that I also was focusing on liberal arts (if not, I apologize). Not all universities are or should be liberal arts schools – fair enough. That still leaves the question of what the goal of liberal education should be. Himes and Newman say overwhelmingly the formation of gentlepersons; I say that view too easily ignores the practical considerations.

      Further, i think one aspect of the conversation about liberal education is that it seems to be in decline. It’s debatable – perhaps it’s only a perceived decline relative to the growth of other types of colleges. But this is the real issue that gets so many in this conversation so antsy. Not that they assume or fail to articulate that all education should be this kind of education, but rather that this kind of education seems increasingly marginalized by a growing focus on making the education work for the money.

      You rightly raise the connection between liberal arts education and race/gender/class, especially as it existed in the first half of the 20th century. That the diversity of students attending college has increased since that time is (I think) unquestionably a postive; that it has been contemporaneous with a decline in the subjects and methods of analysis of the liberal arts is rather more unfortunate. A romanticized view of what education was in the 40’s and 50’s obscures many uncomfortable truths about what went on. But, as you say, what that tiny privileged group learned was quite valuable, and making that education more widely available seems like it would be a public good.

      So, lastly, I reiterate what I think Tracy’s concern is: yes, it’s important people have skills, trades, jobs, the ability to make a living for themselves and their families, and education can (and I think should) help make that possible. But if the only, or primary, form of reasoning people are trained in is how to achieve their economic advantage most efficiently, then that seems problematic for the cultural well-being of society at large. Training in how to approach values-oriented issues is something that a liberal arts education should be able to offer (to those who pursue such an education), but that doesn’t mean liberal arts students shouldn’t also learn how to get a job (It also doesn’t mean that non-liberal arts students shouldn’t have options for learning about those questions either).

  3. SO: I disagree, however, with your underlying point that many or even most of those engaged in this conversation have facilely assumed that all education is or should be liberal arts education.

    Apologies if that is what came across; it’s not what I’d intended to insinuate. I wished to suggest that I believe many people–not simply those exploring the value of a (specifically) liberal education–begin with an unarticulated first premise that there is a singular “role of the university.” I did not mean to imply that you did so, though certainly I understand how my comments led to that interpretation.

    (I also didn’t realize it posted my signature as my e-mail handle! I wasn’t attempting to use a screenname.)
    – Michael Bayer

  4. Amanda I think you raise really good questions in response to Steve’s great post. One other question I have though…do you think Michael has Boston College in mind (as one example) when he’s describing the nature of a university? If a university is a rigorous and sustained conversation with as many conversation partners as possible (and he heavily emphasizes the dead partners) then if I were to read, engage and analyze the Wealth of Nations to myself at my public library and thus have a rigorous and sustained conversation with Adam Smith for free then I have had a university experience as Michael defines it. Maybe what Himes and Tracy are calling us to in a liberal arts education is also to rethink the business model of a Boston College or another name brand school and the prohibitive costs involved. Maybe a university could be something much more simple then the multimillion dollar buildings and administration salaries that the student’s pay $50,000 a year for according to this definition…

    The caveat to my point though…I have been taught how to read, engage and analyze in general and would thus be able to have that conversation with Adam Smith by that university…it’s an interesting question…

    I also wonder how the internet and online conversations would inform Himes’ and Tracy’s understanding of the role of the university…I would think that online conversations make the conversation so much richer and broader (as long as it doesn’t replace reading dead people’s thoughts in books) and therefore would improve the conversation…

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