A recent editorial in Inside Higher Education points to the value of the American liberal arts college education from the perspective of Middle East educators. The article, titled “Lessons from Middle East ‘de Tocquevilles,'” concludes that the core of American higher education that makes it the envy of the world is its focus on student-centered education, its goal of preparing the student for life, not just for a post-graduate job, and its focus on the continuing education and development of its faculty. As the title suggests, the author believes that these Middle East educators may have more keen an insight into the essence of American higher education than we do.
For many reasons, American Universities have been very quick to catch on to what we might call the democratization of education: one that is “student centered” rather than based on the “content-expert model” of dissiminating information. I would even suggest that one need not go as far as the Middle East to see the differences mentioned in this article. In many ways, American Universities are leagues ahead of their European counterparts (with the possible exception of the top British Universities) in exactly the areas mentioned. In the end, the article concludes that the maligned and lamented aspects of American higher education, such as the pursuit of prestige through a veritable arms-race of state of the art facilities and banner athletic programs, these are ultimately detractions from the core of American higher education; they are signs that we are losing our focus.
However, it might be interesting to entertain the possibility that the democratization of the classroom is in some sense tied to the adverse effects of publicity and marketing sought through prominent athletics programs and higher rankings. In other words, the wishes of the consumer (i.e., the student and his/her parents) drive the policies of the University. In many ways, this creates a much more responsive and valuable culture for higher education, but it clearly has its detractions.
Educators in an American liberal arts colleges have a distinct window into the state of American culture. While I often complain about the privilege of expensive technological and recreational facilities over meaningful interaction between educators and students, I have to admit that these trends are not unique to the American University. Moreover, they are not necessarily the signs of a unhealthy atmosphere in higher education. University Administrators are constantly under pressure to provide tangible signs of the competitiveness of their University. Until we, as a culture, can devise ways to put a concrete value on higher education as a part of personal and moral development, we will not be able to change the University culture. Until we see higher education as a key component in the development of a populus for the purpose of good moral and political action, the deficiencies of the University to provide that kind of education are not symptoms of bad University policy, rather they are symptoms of the state of our culture at large.