COLLEGE RATINGS AND THE IDEA OF THE LIBERAL ARTS

JSTOR is a growing digital library of academic journals, books, and other primary sources, but access to their sources is only possible if you’re a member of a wealthy organization, such as a university, corporation, museum, or library. If you are you’ll have, although limited, JSTOR access privileges.

If not and if you’re an individual you’ll have to pay ($20 a month, $200 a year) and then for only very limited access to their collections. Those of us who are not poor, but not wealthy, and who would go on with our life long pursuit of ideas have to manage pretty much without their help.

But recently, as if to improve their public Scrooge-like image, JSTOR has been offering via email without charge their JSTOR Daily. I’ve just read in this week’s Daily an article by Nicholas Tampio, College Ratings and the Idea of the Liberal Arts (the title meant to recall John Henry Newman’s classic The Idea of a University), and would like now to make a comment or two.

According to Tampio Ted Mitchell, undersecretary of education, says that the federal government wants to rate colleges according to post graduation salary information as collected by federal agencies such as the IRS or the Social Security administration. And Mitchell, Tampio said, hoped that Congress would use such a the rating system for “performance-based funding” in its reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

For two years, Republicans as well as the higher education community have pushed back against such a rating system but the administration remains steadfast in its commitment to a value-added model for evaluating colleges.

Tampio thinks this is terrible. “For many of us,” he says, “college was a great opportunity to explore the riches of Greek mythology, modern philosophy, impressionist art, amateur sports, and community service. It would be a tragedy if college, for most kids, became merely preparation for the workforce.”

And he cites in support John Henry Newman,

Newman

one of the great figures in 19th-century English intellectual life, who, while presiding over the Catholic University in Dublin, tried to persuade mostly working-class parents to pay for their children to learn to read ancient Greek and Roman texts; study geometry, astronomy, and music; and live in an “assemblage of learned men” carrying on debates, for example, about the respective limits of faith and reason.

In other words, Newman encouraged ordinary people to pay for a liberal arts curriculum that involved studying classic literature, learning foreign languages, conducting scientific experiments, and talking with other students in a learning community.

But I would ask Tampio, not Newman, what’s wrong with college being “merely” a preparation for the workforce? Especially if workforce includes everything that people do and call “work.” Isn’t work what for most of us life is all about? I’m with Chekhov in this. What do we do in this life, work.

And probably even less today (although I don’t know this) than in Newman’s time is life about “reading classic literature, speaking foreign languages, conducting scientific experiments, and talking with other students in a learning community.”

And life is even less about reading ancient Greek and Roman texts, geometry, astronomy, and music (well, music may be an exception), and living in an “assemblage of learned men,” carrying on debates, for example, about the respective limits of faith and reason, —forget it. How many of you do any of these things? Not that we wouldn’t like to.

In fact our school people, all of them, certainly up to and through the college years, don’t get it. Never have. They don’t get that the study of the liberal arts (and I’ll be the first to admit that there is nothing more important in my own life) is not for kids but for adults. That’s why we talk so much about life long learning. One learns so very little in school and to pretend that learning is over at graduation is to do our young people a great disservice, one we’ve been guilty of for a very long time.

So it may be a very good thing that which President Obama wants to do, rate colleges in regard to how well the graduates do in the real world, that is, in regard to jobs and money. For we know that we can’t liberally educate them (we don’t have the power, that they can only do for themselves, although we can help them to understand their own role in all that) but we can help them to acquire the information and job skills that will ease their entry into the adult world of work.

If you don’t believe me in regard to the total failure of liberal education in the schools look back at the previous century. Weren’t the leaders of that century liberally educated? And then what did they do? The horrors that resulted from their wars could be more than enough in a world court of war crimes to ban liberal education forever.

A footnote to all this. I won’t let the administration off entirely. For also in Tampio’s article we have the President’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, saying that,  “As a nation, we have to make college more accessible and affordable and ensure that all students graduate with an education of real value. Our students deserve to know, before they enroll, that the schools they’ve chosen will deliver this value.”

Well, the “value” he’s talking about is what jobs the students go on to hold. And while I agree that this should be the way we judge our colleges Duncan is terribly mistaken to think that it’s within the power to the schools to “deliver this value.” It’s not.

What schools can do is direct and advise and suggest, and most importantly provide opportunities (no more, no less than parents). The students themselves have to go after the value.

As I think a bit more about all this the school could be doing all the right things but it’s not going to be successful if the students through it all are not working, not working for themselves. And then how would you measure that? For if I knew that the students in this college were working for themselves I’d willingly send my own kids to join them.


One thought on “COLLEGE RATINGS AND THE IDEA OF THE LIBERAL ARTS”

  1. Thanks for your thoughtful commentary on my piece.

    “What’s wrong with college being ‘merely’ a preparation for the workforce?”

    We agree that work is important and a source of great satisfaction. John Newman and I agree that college should prepare graduates for financial and professional success.

    But in a capitalist economy, work often narrows the field of human attention to mundane tasks, including in service and affective labor.

    Do we think it’s important that we preserve the best intellectual and artistic achievements of our civilization? Realistically speaking, the liberal arts departments in our universities provide the home for Greek, Latin, French literature, and other “useless” subjects. If we do not fund the liberal arts for many people, then the masses won’t know there is an alternative to boring work (there is a reason that Russia, China, and other countries rarely provide college students with a liberal arts education).

    Is a liberal arts education sufficient to accomplish much for the individual or civilization? Probably not. But if we go down the path of transforming college into workforce training, then the world will become a darker place.

    Like

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