What’s The Purpose of College?

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There is a very good cover story in Harpers Magazine this month (September issue) by William Deresiewicz entitled “How College Sold Its Soul… and surrendered to the market.” This story is especially relevant here in Wisconsin, where Governor Walker and the Republican-controlled legislature recently slashed the UW system budget by $250,000,000 while freezing tuition, and “the search for truth” came close to being excised from the UW’s mission statement. Although many students are under the misapprehension that eschewing liberal arts programs in favor of business and professional ones is likely to improve their financial position over the long run, pointing that out isn’t Deresiewicz’s main concern; rather, he’s arguing that college should not be viewed in economic terms at all. Here’s a brief excerpt from the article:

It is not the humanities per se that are under attack. It is learning: learning for its own sake, curiosity for its own sake, ideas for their own sake. It is the liberal arts, but understood in their true meaning, as all of those fields in which knowledge is pursued as an end in itself, the sciences and social sciences included. History, sociology, and political-science majors endure the same kind of ritual hazing (“Oh, so you decided to go for the big bucks”) as do people who major in French or philosophy. Governor Rick Scott of Florida has singled out anthropology majors as something that his state does not need more of. Everybody talks about the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering, and math – but no one’s really interested in science, and no one’s really interested in math: interested in funding them, interested in having their kids or their constituents pursue careers in them. That leaves technology and engineering, which means (since the second is a subset of the first) it leaves technology.

Deresiewicz locates the origin of the problem in the ascendence of “neo-liberalism”, by which he means “an ideology that reduces all values to money values.” Corporate and other business interests would prefer that colleges act as vocational schools, rather than that they train students to reason critically and creatively. He points out that it is not in the interests of economic elites to have students conceiving of alternatives to the status quo, or at least to have them gaining the skills that would allow them to do so. Whether you agree with his diagnosis or not, his critique of current attitudes towards higher education (even on college campuses themselves) is well worth reading.

If you have trouble finding the article, Kathleen Dunn of WPR interviewed Deresiewicz on Monday 8/31, and they covered many issues not discussed in the article, including Wisconsin-related ones. You can listen to or download the segment here. You can also find the podcast on iTunes.