College’s purpose then and now



“We’ve always been at war with Eastasia.” –from 1984, a catchphrase to prevent the citizens from thinking much about the purpose of the war.

It’s fascinating how easy it is to lose track of relatively recent history. Oh, we know Rome built a huge empire, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and all the rest, but it seems as we get closer to “today,” we start to forget everyday things that were known to all.

People think, for example, constantly rising prices, what is commonly called “inflation,” is how the world has always been, little realizing that before the advent of fiat currency, prices were relatively stable. As a child, George Washington paid about as much for bread as his great-grandfather did when he was a child…nobody in our modern world can honestly say that, and most people can’t conceive of a world without constantly rising prices eroding any attempt at savings.

My blog is more about education than bread, but much the same applies. We’ve lost track of what higher education used to mean. It was only a few years ago, when I’d stumbled on a long-forgotten box of old tests, looked at them, and realized “I’d be fired if I gave tests like this today” that I began to realize that the changes I was seeing were not simply the imaginings of an ever-more-curmudgeonly professor. I had concrete proof of the changes, seen with my own eyes, held in my own hands. Seeing those old tests led to the eventual birth of this blog, but I digress.

A recent Harper’s magazine article really hammers home the changes in higher education within the last handful of decades, beyond the astronomical tuition. Even when it comes to tuition, people don’t realize how cheap higher education used to be. Two generations ago, tuition at Harvard, perhaps the most prestigious school in the county, was a mere $2000, while the minimum wage was $1.40. Tuition then was less than a year’s pay for even the lowest paid workers…and now it’s up by a factor of 20 (realistically, various fees put it way more than that), beyond the reach of a minimum wage worker, beyond the reach of even “well paid” workers today.

It isn’t just tuition, however. The whole idea of higher education has been warped to the point it would be unrecognizable to someone from less than a century ago.

A century ago, “mission statement” was a meaningless phrase, although all institutions today have a mission statement. That said, certainly institutions of the past thought about their purpose. Consider the following from a liberal arts college founder, from about 1925 or so:

The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.

Note how this is a complete sentence, and identifies the primary purpose of the college quite clearly. Even though the word “education” isn’t there, it’s very clear that the purpose of the institution is to help students mature into better human beings. Note also the length of the sentence: you have to pay attention to the whole thing to comprehend the value of what is written. Incidentally, I encourage the gentle reader to read texts from this period and earlier, to see how much the English written language has degenerated into brief sequences of grunts by comparison.

The same school now has a mission statement. Consider this quote from it:


Instead of a real sentence indicating purpose, we now have isolated words that don’t remotely comprise a coherent thought. With no supporting words, these words can mean whatever the reader wants them to mean…and I’ve certainly encountered many an administrator that honestly doesn’t know the meaning of these, and quite a few other, words…but can still recite the words by rote, little different than a trained parrot.

The excellent article highlights the above issues, but, not being too familiar with higher education, the author makes a misstep:

(“Integrity” is presumably intended as a synonym for the more familiar “character,” which for colleges at this point means nothing more than not cheating.)

It’d be nice if integrity even stood for as little as “not cheating.” Every semester I get an expanded list of cheating methods to watch out for, assuming I was foolish enough to catch cheaters. I’ve seen many faculty destroyed for catching cheaters. Administration, in their zealous pursuit of growth at all costs, penalizes faculty for catching cheaters in ways I’ve discussed before in my blog. Just this semester, a friend’s child just started at a state (flagship) university; her first day there she was given access to a “secret” database of questions/answers for the tests of her classes. We all pretend our schools of higher education are doing a good job, but…I really think some legitimate scrutiny is in order.

So, whatever “integrity” means, I know on campus it sure has nothing to do with cheating.

But the most important thing to note about the second text is what it doesn’t talk about: thinking or learning.

To be fair, the older statement also says nothing about learning. I know, it’s all too easy to be nostalgic for the good old days, but it’s clear that in the past, higher education as least gave the intention of trying to help students to improve themselves…and it’s similarly clear that this endeavor is not on the table today.

The author of the article discusses what is on the table today:

“College…has three potential purposes: the commercial (preparing to start a career), the cognitive…and the moral… “Moral,” here, does not mean learning right from wrong. It means developing the ability to make autonomous choices — to determine your own beliefs, independent of parents, peers, and society. To live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.

“…Only the commercial purpose now survives as a recognized value.”

The author then goes on to decry that our institutions of higher education have ever dwindling majors in the “pure knowledge” fields, and more and more are attempting to become jobs training centers. While the author says much I agree with, he’s not considered why this is the case.

There are two primary issues. First, as always, the student loan scam has driven the price of tuition so high that students must indebt themselves to go to college. Because of these loans, education as an end must suffer—a student taking out a loan should focus on jobs training, as he’ll need a means to pay off the loan. This provides a significant drift away from knowledge and into technical training.

The second is more subtle. Administration is paid based on growth, and, bottom line, at the risk of sounding elitist, it requires much more effort to master things like science, mathematics, and literature, than it does to figure out how to do well in fields where a primary requirement is not shave. So, campuses, to increase retention and growth, are flooded with pointless courses that accomplish nothing. Students, not knowing better, and seeing they’re charged the same for “Game of Thrones” courses as for “applications of fluid dynamics” courses, sign up for the former if they can’t handle the latter.

Admin: “There were many applicants for the position, but I couldn’t accept any of them. So, we’re advertising the position again and do let me know if you know someone.”

Me: “What was wrong with the applicants?”

Admin: “They were Education degree holders. I really need someone competent. Do you know anyone?

–yes, some admin don’t care who they hire to teach, as long as the candidate will work for nothing. But at institutions where it matters, suddenly all degrees are not equal.

Education Departments are notorious for offering simple degree programs, sucking in students—driving down the costs of hiring teachers while simultaneously creating legions of degreed but unemployed people…because you don’t need 25% of your population to be professional teachers, even as 25% of the student base is taking Education courses. Our “leaders” of higher education should know that and take moves to stop it, but instead they just get excited that the Education departments are growing so nicely.

This trend towards “university as jobs-training” is being further accelerated by our political caste:

“We see it in our president’s swipe, last year, at art-history majors. “I promise you,” said our intellectual in chief, “folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art-history degree.” We see it in Governor Rick Scott’s proposal to charge liberal-arts majors higher tuition at Florida’s state universities….(Governor) Walker “proposed striking language about public service and improving the human condition, and deleting the phrase: ‘Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.’

” The university’s mission would henceforth be to “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

I suspect there’s more going on here than public interest. There are now 4 year Hotel Management degrees, for example. Even though one could learn everything useful about hotel management quickly, colleges somehow manage to take 4 years to teach what many immigrants figure out how to do within months of coming to this country. Even if learning such things took so much time, I’m not convinced our youth should be encouraged to take out massive loans for skills trivially learned on the job. Alas, teaching trivial skills is good for growth…

Part of the problem with higher education is the untouchable administrative caste, which has no respect or understanding of education. While the statement quoted above about the “paramount obligation” of the college comes from the college’s founder, the four disjointed words comes from our new breed of looters leaders. The author inadvertently reveals how worthless these “leaders” are when he asks a Poo Bah of higher education a question:

“So what do you think the college should be about?” I finally asked him.

“Leadership,” he said.

Instead of coherent answers, the Poo Bah can only grunt out a meaningless slogan. It’s little different than the Oceania of 1984, where whenever a citizen was asked about the reasons for the war, he could only respond mindlessly: “We’ve always been at war with Eastasia.”

Orwell was wrong in his 1984even our leaders, to only grunt out single word slogans. That said, Orwell’s prediction was correct: we’re being trained not to think. A century ago, our leaders knew what higher education was ultimately about, but today’s leaders don’t care, or even know.

One more generation perhaps, and everyone will believe “Higher education was always about Leadership.”



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