Monday, November 27, 2017

Betrayed by our universities. . .

Some months ago my wife and I visited friends in Virginia and that included a trip to Monticello and to the University of Virginia, both designed by the same man, Thomas Jefferson.  The original campus was a marvel of educational idealism.  Students and faculty lived in close proximity and the lectures of the classroom were continued and even supplemented by the conversations outside the classroom.  It was Jefferson's appeal to learning as an honorable goal that fueled the idea and turned it into brick and mortar.  His love of books and his appreciation for the arts were not only personal but professional.  This, too, he passed on to the institution that was one of his most considered and prominent legacies.

Now, hundreds of years later, we find ourselves in a different spot.  A university education is one of the most costly purchases a person will make in their lifetime.  Our economy is shadowed by student debt that hangs over graduates at the same time many wonder if any of it will ever be repaid.  Business complains that the educational process is not practical enough and it should be directed less at education than at training for jobs.  The process is taking longer and longer -- in part spurred by the indecision of students and the need to start over when majors change and also because it is great fun to live on somebody else's dime the life of leisure within the carefully controlled atmosphere of a campus.  Besides, many are not sure they will find a job they like that pays what they want, anyway.  The typical campus is no longer a place where there is a free exchange of ideas and has become the domain of the politically correct who espouse progressive liberalism.  Students behave like spoiled brats in demanding the classes they want to take, the grades they want to receive, and the teachers whom they want to take.  On top of it all, entrepreneurs are building a whole new university system in which no one really goes to college but the university lives in a virtual world and classes are online.  Would Jefferson recognize the university today?

Underneath it all, however, the problem is less political than it is educational.  We no longer have a core curriculum that unites many majors and minors.  Knowledge is no longer the real goal and the graduates have been taught some things but not necessarily to think and have certainly not been given a thorough intellectual preparation.  If our colleges and universities cannot make a coherent argument for what was once called a liberal arts education or articulate for an integrated core curriculum, then perhaps it would be better and certainly cheaper to put many of these students into tech schools or trade schools.  If those same institutions, now working so hard to promote a self-described valueless view of education, cannot coherently describe the role of moral and spiritual formation as a partner to the free enterprise of inquiry, then they have failed in the foundational endeavor for which they exist.  Again, we ought to think twice about putting parents or students into debt for a piece of paper that means a great deal in academia but not so much in life.

Listen to the way the products of our universities speak, how difficult it is for them to think and write cogently and coherently, and how ill-equipped they are of history, rhetoric, and logic.  We complain about fake news but in many of schools of higher education our kids are learning fake truths about the past and present and therefore making faulty decisions about the future.  Before we turn them all into job training programs for vocations that may not even exist four to six years from now, maybe we ought to reconsider the original role and purpose of a college education.  Maybe we ought to instill a love for learning, the values to judge ideas, the broad perspective of history that informs the present, and the language skills to articulate well that past, address the present, and shape the future.

If this is a problem for secular schools, it is no less a problem for the Christian college and the Lutheran university.  These must be more than a secular institution with a chapel.  Our values and our vision, steeped in Christian history and informed by the living Word of God, should direct us even more to the noble pursuit of learning and the worthy purpose of education.  Otherwise our religious institutions of higher education will become the domains of the very few who can afford them and the fewer still who think that the only faith has to offer the grand scheme of life is some window dressing.


Anonymous said...

Pastor Peters wrote: "Before we turn them all into job training programs for vocations that may not even exist four to six years from now, maybe we ought to reconsider the original role and purpose of a college education."

*Sigh.* Liberal Arts and Sciences professors neglect to address one thing: Student debt and unemployment. A major in Liberal Arts is a major in unemployment and $500 monthly student loan payments for the next 20 years. Perhaps if the universities were to make a college degree affordable, as it was in the early 1970s, then they might be on to something here. However, employers in the USA refuse to train. How many job advertisements feature the requirement: "Must have at least 3-5 years experience." Until these issues get resolved, the universities will continue to pump out graduates who lack vocational skills.

For inspiration, please look at the German higher education system.

Liberal Arts should provide a firm foundation for critical thinking without the liberal "social justice advocate" bias. In this economy, students need to declare a major that teaches the skills employers want. As most companies are conservative, they do not need unreliable employees trained in a "social justice" mindset.

Anonymous said...

A millenial Liberal Arts graduate:

John Joseph Flanagan said...

A solid liberal arts education used to be a well rounded approach to learning and critical thinking, however, the political agenda and the social justice orientation has made universities bastions of propaganda and intolerance. Critical thinking is discouraged. Accepting the progressive mindset and dismissing conservative values became the new norms in education. I do not think it is all hopeless, however, and it is possible for Lutheran colleges to achieve academic excellence and insist on critical thinking, however, this must be done while emphasizing a Christian education and worldview.

Anonymous said...

During the O.P Kretzmann years, Valparaiso University was a
solid Lutheran institution. During his presidency he put Valpo
on the academic map. Those Golden Years will never return and
neither will The Chapel of The Resurrection be filled with students.

James Kellerman said...

Liberal arts aren't the problem, but rather what passes for liberal arts nowadays is. Even in today's sometimes crazy English departments, students are still forced to read a goodly amount of literature that offers a variety of perspectives, simply because so much of it was written before current fads took over the world. Even if professors interpret texts of older vintage exclusively in a Marxist or womynist manner, the literary work itself still speaks up and resists the Procrustean bed on which it is being placed. An English major knows how to listen attentively to any text or set of words, always asks himself what might keep him from interpreting it correctly, and has learned how to argue in reply when necessary. It is a fine education for anyone who has to assess and respond to new information all the time--in other words, the sort of thing most people have to do in the modern business world.

But for every English major out there (around 17,000 in 2016), you'll find five communications majors (around 90,000), who are considered to have a more "marketable" or "practical" degree. But ironically the best way to learn how to speak or write well isn't to do those things--or at least not to do only those things--but to read a massive amount of difficult literature. If I were a public official or CEO and needed a speech writer or publicity director, I'd bypass even the best communications major and look for a good English major instead.

It's not just the English department that has suffered decline at the hands of rival programs that offer easier but "more practical" degrees. It is rife throughout the humanities. Is reading philosophy too difficult for you? Try majoring in Social Justice instead. Do you find writing in Spanish about Spanish literature too hard? Then forget it and major in Latin American studies instead, where a little Spanglish is all you'll need.

In my experience, people who pursue the traditional liberal arts programs don't fare worse than the typical graduate. But those who pursue the newer programs in the humanities, which are supposedly more marketable, tend to have the harder time finding employment.

Neil Stauffer said...

Everything started going downhill when the federal government got involved in the education business. Our schools began telling students that everyone must go to college regardless of the cost. Society demeaned blue collar work while students racked up massive loans to earn sociology degrees with no jobs to show for it. We started teaching and believing the false notion of "good debt" and that education is always worth the monetary investment. Still the same today. At a time when students need wisdom, we tell them en masse to take out student loans...that this is always a good thing because student debt is not really debt and the only path to success is through the university system. Don't get me wrong. We need liberal arts programs. We need the fine arts. We need science and technology programs. We need philosophers, and teachers, and professionals. We need to foster love of learning. But learning can happen through many different avenues, including self-study and less costly means. The hard truth is that not everything is worth the investment, even education. I grew up in a town where blue collar work was belittled. The mindset of thumbing one's nose at blue collar jobs was instilled in the schools and culture of the community. It's a shame because I have known plumbers who are more intellectually astute than many philosophy majors. Polite society has dismissed blue collar work, and the result has been disastrous. We are producing more and more college graduates each year with degrees unrelated to their occupations who enter the workforce as indentured servants to Sallie Mae. I am starting to see some glimmers of hope with renewed focus on the trades. Maybe we will wake up and stop telling our children to bankrupt their future before they even get started in life. At the very least, we should foster a love of learning while also helping students understand their best career options may not necessitate a four-year degree.

Anonymous said...

As a dad with grade school aged sons, I will have only three questions for the university department(s) where my sons would study:

1. How much

2. How long

3. Can my sons realistically get a full time job in the field after graduation

Sadly, our society is loaded with people who did poorly in high school and are therefore expected to enter the blue collar workforce. Most of the unskilled labor jobs are unstable and do not pay a living wage. Most of the people working those jobs would be rejected by the Army for various reasons, and not just for being unable to pass the ASVAB. Too many of them are strung out on drugs, have personal hygiene issues, poor social skills, tattoos and/or piercings, etc.

As to the post upstream lamenting that few people are interested in blue collar work: Valid points. However, only a handful of skilled (union) trades are possibly worth pursuing: Electrician, Plumber, Heating and Air Conditioning, etc.

Carl Vehse said...

Robots have replaced many of the blue-collar manufacturing jobs. And there doesn't seem to be much of a future as a TV or electrical appliance repairman.