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.

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