On the Mission of the University

When I attended grad school in the late 60s, the student protest movement against the Vietnam War largely pushed those of us interested in working in higher education administration to [re]examine the mission or purpose of the university.  The draft meant that you HAD to think about why you were in college since it was literally a lottery as to whether or not you could graduate and start a career or see what was out there in the workforce -or go fight and perhaps die in Southeast Asia.  Some choice to think about every night and day in your senior year…

Which leads me to the choices students face now which are not deeply existential (am I or am I not a conscientious objector to this particular war or all wars), but rather focused down on practical and pragmatic economic consequences (how am I to repay my $30-50-or more thousand dollars in debt if I am only able to find work at minimum wage?).

So is college a place to learn or to earn? Everyone is writing and speaking on some aspect of this issue.  The titles reflect the debate in the public square: “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life”; “Aspiring Adults Adrift” are two newly released books.  The former focuses on how our elite Ivy League institutions go about the business of educating their students while the latter concerns itself with a survey of how 1,000 recent grads fare in the workplace.  Other essays appear regularly in the Chronicle of Higher Education or University World News – and in the NY Times this past Sunday.

Frank Bruni, wrote a column, “Demanding More From College,” http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/07/opinion/sunday/frank-bruni-demanding-more-from-college.html?_r=0, which was excellent in examining the debate. His focus was not about issues of the curriculum, preparation for a career, advising, internationalization, or binge drinking; rather, he talked about the larger purpose which we, as a society, ought to be embracing when we send kids to college.  He said:

“We live in a country of sharpening divisions, pronounced tribalism, corrosive polarization.  And I wish we would nudge kids – no, I wish we would push them- to use college as an exception and a retort to that, as a a pre-emptive strike against it, as a staging ground for behaving and living in a different, broader, healthier way…”  Beautiful statement that is.

Bruni says a lot more that I agree with about the “narrowing” of student horizons; of how they are not associating themselves with those who think differently, and so on.  And how this is in fact, a result of how our society is moving – thanks to the way that what we read and watch and listen to only mirrors our side of an issue thanks to the internet. This is not, I think, just old school thinking – it’s a fact.  And so despite my own writing and speaking about the linkage between international education and employability and how students need to make sense of their off-campus experiences to strengthen their career portfolios, I want to be clear that I fully subscribe to what Frank Bruni says.

We need graduates in the workplace who know how to get along and be part of the larger world – who are unafraid of difference, who show empathy and are tolerant of those with differing views.  We can still aim for our colleges and universities to deliver on this promise.



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