Why Higher Education Continues to Fail

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  • Why Higher Education Continues to Fail

    Although American hieher education has comniled a record that justifies many of th;! lofty claims made for;t, any objec- tive analvsis of its successlfailure ratio leaves little to cele- brate. ~ ~ p i n ~ o i n t two pajor failures: it has developed far too few well-educated citizens who can participate in and un- derstand public issues with the requisite historical, political, scientific, and ethical awareness, and it has graduated far too many professionals in medicine, law, engineering, science, and teaching who are unable to address themselves to the signif- icant issues underpinning their own activities. Both of these failures speak to a certain shallowness of intellectual sub- stance, resulting no doubt from a schooling preoccupied with specialization and focused on the future work, career, and occupational competence of the individual.

    I t is not difficult to understand how a liberally-educated faculty, caught up in a whirlwind of social, technological, and cultural change led higher education into such shallowness.

    The essential, and sometimes conflicting, features of the liberal mind are: (1) an.abiding faith in the power of reason to offer guidance in human affairs; (2) an unrelenting impulse to organize the elements of life in a rational way; (3) a con- tentious skepticism of all utopias; and (4) a stimulating awareness of the capacity of imagination to bring out the variousness and possibilities in situations. However, faith in reason and skepticism of utopias are contradictory (If human behavior is rational, then rational utopias should follow). Similarly, the impulse to organize is opposed by the awareness of variousness and possibilities that leads to complexity, dif- ficulty, ambiguity, and a respect for pluralism. The factors controlling the 1):ilanct: am(,& these conflicting f(wtuws are seldom easy to identify, hur durlng thr period of unpreLe- dented chance thnt hm marked the middle threr-fitihs of this century, th& have tended to favor the pursuit of reason and the impulse to organize. Under the necessitv of develonine . useful-programs for ever increasing masses of students, faculties have been led to minimize their anti-utopian skep- ticism, and to concentrate their imaginations more narrowly. In this environment, higher education has tended to ignore the deeper questions and to gloss over the ethical ambiguities that might have been addressed had a climate for the full ex- pression of liberalism existed.

    All of this has resulted in a flood of technically competent but rootless or morallv disoriented eraduates. As examnles.

    ~ ~ . ~~. we see medical doctors tninslating every issue into a technical ~n)ll lem with a clinical solutiim. reeardlrssof the ethical im- &cations; industrialists, confrontei with new environmental quality laws, hiring lawvers to circumvent the laws rather than . . engintwi to find economical ways to ilc(wnmodate to them; and faculty members doing and puhlishina research ofques- tionahle quality for the least admirableof Career moiiva- tinnr

    Critics of higher education have been unmerciful, claiming that this emphasis on unexamined specialization and pro- fessionalism fosters ignorance under the illusion of education and guarantees triviality in professional endeavors. They cite rampant antiintellectualism (even on campuses), hureau- cratization of our culture, insatiable materialism, and bur- geoning barbarism in dealing with human problems as the legacies of an educational system gone awry.

    As always, criticism is easier than remedy, but higher edu- cation will continue to fail until faculty in all disciplines rec-

    ognize that because basic humanistic skills and hard moral choices are essential components of all human discourse, these are-or should be-as much a part of the education of a pro- fessional or scholar as are the knowledge and techniques of the discipline itself.

    We should realize, however, that the humanistic skills re- quired of a professional in the last quarter of the twentieth century may be somewhat different from those inherited from the nineteenth century and those we learned in youth. In the ~ a s t . the humanistic emphasis was on the ~rivatenerson-on his dr her good taste, o; in the retreat of ;he indkidual into carefullv cultivated. warm and familiar feuowshi~s awav from the rest" of the worid. Although this continues a i d ma; he of critical importance to many today, the emphasis now is on the humanistic skills of the public person.

    Making "humaneness for the public person" a vital part of the edu(nrim prows; will requGe attention in at least three areas: transmission of mores from the arril of spccialkntion; discinline in the skills of human action: and cultivation of a rootedness in space and time.

    Each profession or area of specialization has its own mores-fixed customs or conventions imbued with an ethical significance and having the force of law within the discipline. The deeree and thorouehness with which these are nassed on - to succeeding generations in formal professional training varies widelv amone academic disciplines. In manv areas. apprentices &e expected to discover them largely on their 04 and to act accordinelv. Such an arrangement can lead to an undesirably wide range of interpretations of the meaning and importance of the mores, and to erosion of professional stan- dards. Considerable evidence suggests that all areas of spe- cialization need to attend this matter. For the sciences, i t would appear to be of critical importance.

    Although human action is all tied up with qualities such as knowledge. sentiment. memorv. tradition. obstinance. nassion. - . ". . . fancy, evasionist tactics, joy, sorrow, and hope, it appears to stem ultimatelv from the capacitv to plan, calculate and as- . . sess, and from the ability to know when and how to act. How accurate and how wise a person is in doing these things seems to depend upon a kind of sixth sense of discernment that en- ables him to read the signs of the times and to sense the state of the world around him. This sixth sense can he enlarged and conditioned by education. All areas of the curriculum can and should contribute to this aspect of student development.

    At its base, education involves the assumption that people can acouire sufficient understandine of how the world changes and how to anticipate its rhythmsand permutations so &at thev can live successfullv in it. But this assumption can have mt!aning only if th tw 1:xists something that does not change or does not change ra~idlv. This means thnt rducatiun re. quires reference 6 some p&t of stability or continuity-that there must be some group of past experiences that can serve . . as the haais for understiinding and & h r e in new experi- rnws. From this has come the assertion thar the trulv F ~ U - cated person must have a certain rootedness in space and time.

    I t is worth contemplatine that the failure to provide or to require this rootedness-this appreciation of tbe past, this sense of continuity, this fellowship with civilization-is the most pernicious flaw in higher education today. WTL

    Volume 56, Number 2 February 1979 1 69


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