Tuesday, May 17, 2011

more Kant

I read a blog called Miscellanea by Gloria Origgi. She's an Italian intellectual who teaches philosophy in Paris. Origgi writes her posts variously in Italian, French, or English.[1] I did a blog post on her back in August, '09. She has a current post on a topic that needs more attention than it's getting. Maybe you saw Malcolm Harris's Bad Education which appeared toward the end of April in N + 1 mag. Harris complains, with great effect, about the problem of student loans in the United States. He says: "Last August, student loans surpassed credit cards as the nation’s single largest source of debt, edging ever closer to $1 trillion. Yet for all the moralizing about American consumer debt by both parties, no one dares call higher education a bad investment. The nearly axiomatic good of a university degree in American society has allowed a higher education bubble to expand to the point of bursting." If you haven't read the article, I suggest that you do so.

A couple of weeks ago, Timothy Burke, who's another blogger I read, did a post on the Harris article. He says "I think the N+1 essay is fairly on-target. The basic thrust of Harris’ argument is that demand for higher education is strongly inelastic, that students have been willing to incur almost any debt load in pursuit of the credentials offered in higher education because those credentials appear to be the only way to secure a middle-class life, and hence, higher education ratcheted up tuition rates well above inflation for decades." Burke believes that the bursting of this bubble will bring down some schools that give little return for the high prices they charge. He's thinking of unaccredited schools and for-profit degree mills where teaching is done online and not face-to-face, but he's also thinking of expensive schools that train students narrowly for jobs in professions that are already saturated with workers and schools where educational priorities are skewed away from classroom and lab toward the less academic features of a college education. He worries that the burst will damage schools that succeed in giving their students an indisputably high-quality education — ones where the high prices charged produce excellent teaching in an environment where the students' experience in the classroom, lab, and library is given highest priority.

In this latter group are schools like Swarthmore College, which is where he teaches. He notes that there are some weaknesses in these prestigious schools — they spread themselves too thinly (he says they have struggled to meet the expectations of "students and their families that highly selective institutions should be full-service institutions") and they have a tendency to nurture specialization, preparing students for graduate school and not helping them gain a broad understanding of the world in which they live. Tim fears that when schools like Swarthmore are put on the defensive their faculties will become even more specialized, walling themselves off from specialists in other fields, and that not just students, but the whole institution will suffer.

Specialists must understand and be able to explain the broad context of the disciplines in which they work: "In a highly selective liberal arts institution, a specialist has to be able to explain what the intellectual, abstract, normative value of specialization is, and that requires valid models for other choices of how to live and know and think in the world." He concludes:
If students at an allegedly liberal arts institution are confronted by a landscape of curricular rivalry and enrollment capture, not only will they not learn how to make judicious choices about what to know and interpret and how to do so, but they will quickly regard institutional rhetoric about the liberal arts as an insincere atavism. Under those circumstances, the only reasonable choices for those students who happen to end up in such a place will be those choices which most mimic or resemble vocational or pre-professional pathways. At which point, many students may reasonably ask why they shouldn't just cut to the chase and leave for an openly vocational institution, selective or otherwise. Maybe that only gets you a job for a few years after graduation, but that might be preferable to a program which offers no vision at all besides "choose a discipline, become an apprentice academic in that discipline, go on into academia". At that point, do not ask for whom the bubble pops: it pops for thee.
Gloria Origgi has different worries about the bubble in higher education. She fears that students and their families will come more and more to demand a measurable, and short-term, return on their investment in education. Burke mentions this "vocational training" as a target of cost-conscious families but it's not his main focus. Origgi runs through some studies showing that prosperity is not so closely linked with possession of an undergraduate degree as formerly and says it's less and less true that higher education is a good investment. In the end, however, she concludes, much as Burke does, that higher education does not and should not be seen as producing a product that can be measured solely in dollars and cents. She cites Martha Nussbaum's excellent book, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities and says the value of higher education lies mainly in preserving and extending cultural values. As Burke said in an earlier post, the value of the liberal arts curriculum must be justified, but not in narrow economic terms. Rather, it must be measured by its success in preparing students to achieve a fully successful life — in every meaningful sense of the term.

Schools should show that their graduates are capable of achieving this broadly-defined type of success and should demonstrate that these graduates credit, at least partly, "the content of their education [that] produced ways of thinking about the world that led to that success." I've a friend who might be a good choice as spokesperson for the value of a high-quality liberal arts education. She graduated from Swarthmore in the same class I did and, after trying out some jobs that she didn't find satisfying, eventually got a position with Intel, the giant microprocessor company. They hired her at least partly because she was not a specialist — not an engineer, not an MBA, not an accountant, not a financial whizz — and hiring her paid off for the company as well as my friend. By the time she retired, she'd become head of logistics, a huge job, involving extremely complex operations. This executive position suited her very well. I've also done some posts on five men who could attest to the value of a liberal education. During the 1840s they attended Germany's colleges and universities and later, as prominent American citizens, showed themselves to be cultured and humane as well as politically and economically powerful individuals.[2]

It's Origgi who has the last word on this topic: "Insomma, più Kant e meno account dovrebbe essere lo slogan per salvare i campus dal nonsenso in cui si sono cacciati." Put tersely: if they are to survive the education bubble, schools should adopt more Kant and less accounting as their slogan.


This image comes from flickr.


Some sources:

Perché andare all'università? by Gloria Origgi

On the Bubble, by Timothy Burke

Liberal Arts Poster Children by Timothy Burke

Project on Student Debt

Student Debt, a Pew Foundation report

Institute for College Access and Success

The Thiel Fellowship: 20 Under 20

10 More Reasons Why Parents Should Not Send Their Kids to College

Living Life is better than Dying in College

Don’t Send Your Kids to College

8 Alternatives to College



[1] I don't read Italian and my French is pitiful so I rely on Google Translate for my understanding of Origgi's posts.

[2] These are posts on five of the men called Forty-Eighters who were forced to leave Germany as a result of their actions during the Revolutions of 1848. To skim them click the label 1848 in the side bar at right. Note that their wives tended also to be poster children for the value of high-quality, non-specialist education. And note also that one of them, my great-grandfather, was too poor to attend university but did attend the Gymnasium Carolinum, one of the best (and most ancient) high schools in the country.

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