Insight into the American University from abroad

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.

Bad news for colleges; good news for humanities teachers

Inside Higher Ed is reporting today on a new survey released by an independent business group, The Conference Board, which finds that 431 HR representatives of companies hiring college graduates rate all college graduates–i.e., four-year as well as community college–poorly in the areas of Written Communication, Writting in English and Leadership. In fact, the only area in which all college graduates were rated as “excellent” by a majority of HR representatives was application of information technology.

This is a slap on the wrist of colleges, especially four-year liberal arts colleges. But it is an opportunity for those of us teaching in the humanities to demonstrate that our place in higher education is integral and ought to be reinforced. There is no better place to learn good writing skills than in History, Philosophy, Litterature, Theology or Classics courses. These courses are often begrudgingly included in the “core” curriculum for liberal arts colleges, but their faculty, financial support and status within the University has consistently been undermined: they are often seen as refuges for neo-marxist, feminist, queer-theoretical or postmodern nonsense and are consistently contrasted with those disciplines that fit more easily into the framework of modern technical sciences. This new report suggests that our emphasis on learning science and technology has done its job; now we need to return to the classical skills of reading and writing that can be taught so well in the humanities.