In the process of trying to follow the conversation about higher education and its potential transformation, I came across a discussion between Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal, Sal Khan of Khan Academy, and John Hennessy, the president of Stanford University. One of the interesting moments was when Khan (if memory serves) said something about students coming to college to learn a skill or to prepare for a job. John Hennessy immediately jumped in and said that what the universities offer is “an enriching experience” that is greater than just professional training. Khan quickly countered that parents and students should understand what is really being offered. Mossberg noted the disconnect in expectations.
The discussion goes to the core of the crisis we are in. The price of education is high. As it has grown, the customers are getting cagier about asking, “Just what exactly am I getting here?” In the process, the people who work in admissions emphasize the great jobs students will get and the salaries they will be paid. The overall impression tilts more to the side of professional training and less to the side of an enriching experience. This situation helps explain why we are having trouble maintaining strong core curricula in our schools. Every professional training program wants to claim more hours. And their students expect mostly to learn from their professional programs. The broader sense of the college is being lost.
So, let me take a shot at arguing for “the enriching experience” of college rather than the professional training aspect. I’ll use the core curriculum as the foundation of my argument.
Let’s say we have a student who just wants to study corporate finance and can’t understand why he needs to take courses in English, history, social science, biology, and other fields. What is the value of that first couple of years of courses other than to extract extra tuition from him and his parents?
My answer is that the courses in the core curriculum are extremely useful in developing the knowledge and abilities of the student. The courses in English composition and literature, alone, have the potential to make or break a career. Writing is the engine of the expression of learning. It is how we communicate. Even when we speak, we are essentially writing. The reason these courses are perceived to be of low value is because our non-English major student tends to view them as mere requirements that must be satisfied. Students think they must bow before some idol they do not understand in order to please bearded professors who are caught up in old rituals. The truth is that excellence in courses in English contributes greatly to further success. How many times have I read term papers and wished that the student had retained anything useful from his/her English classes? The same will be true of some corporate boss up the line. The organizational superior will read a white paper or a research memo and wonder why the staff member couldn’t communicate more efficiently, effectively, and persuasively.
We could work our way through similar examples in other disciplines to great effect. Actually taking the time to become a well-educated person and gaining mastery of at least entry level knowledge in a variety of fundamental areas will improve one’s ability to identify problems, analyze them, compare analogous situations, and apply useful context in the course of determining a solution. Studying history seems like a useless exercise in studying irrelevant and dead civilizations. In truth, it is the next best thing to first hand experience.
We need to decide whether or not we expect our colleges to become something more like trade schools for the white collar set. If we do make that decision, I think we will have lost something important and become poorer as a result. The first step in avoiding that outcome will be to figure out how to convince students that they need to flourish in the core rather than merely outlasting it.