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The Big Issues in Higher Education These Days

So the final issue in my class in PUBLIC POLICY this semester is HIGHER EDUCATION.  Here are some controversial propositions generated from papers I’ve just read from the class.  I’m not saying they’re all true, but they all are worth thinking about:

1. Too many people “survive college” and are getting diplomas these days.

2. Graduating from college has become incredibly easy if you shop around for easy courses and easy majors.  Even if in many cases it’s not so easy to get an A, it’s also really easy not to flunk.

3. Math and natural science are fairly hard everywhere, and it’s really possible to flunk.  The answers in science and math are usually black-and-white or objectively true or false.  So it’s impossible to bluff your way through calculus and advanced statistics. You have to both be smart and study hard to do well.

4. So math and science are all about the fact-value distinction.  Facts are real, values are “emotive.”  From their real view mathematicians and scientists look down on the self-indulgent BS artists.

5.  Then there’s the humanities and social science as they’re usually taught.  A student with a quite average ability in language and minimal effort can listen to lectures and know enough to write acceptable answers on exams.

6. But the truth is that students of such unexceptional ability—unless they’re driven to “overachieve”—don’t really understand the reading for the class.  That’s true, for example, of the boring but dense history textbook.  But it’s even more true of, say, Plato, Faulkner, or Nietzsche.

7. Said students can usually get by without doing the reading.  That means that they slide by with a superficial and confused understanding, and by basically being unmoved—much less improved—by the subject matter and purpose of the course.

8. One problem, of course, is that the “humanities,” even these days, too often buy into the fact-value distinction.  That means they’re all about not the pursuit of truth but articulating value judgments that are basically relative.  So students in the humanities have a hard time understanding that their opinions are usually wrong or stupid without being educated.  And professors too often facilitate their self-indulgence by speaking of the class as a community of equal learners, and by adding that what matters is less understanding than engagement or activism.

9.  This problem can also be called a democratic problem:  As Alexis de Tocqueville explains, democrats are skeptical of claims for knowledge that aren’t technical or scientific.  If I defer to your personal judgment, then I’m letting you rule me.  And so the ideas of truth and virtue are transformed into the idea of the equality of all personal judgments.  That way I get to rule myself, as you get to rule yourself.

10. As one of my students (Jacob Stubbs) astutely reminded me, students are too often taught that the various answers that have been given to the fundamental questions of the “humanities,” such as “Why is there being rather than nothing at all?” or “Who or what is God,” are little more than different values.  But the truth is that those real questions can only be taken seriously by those who think that they might have real answers, and the way to those answers is rigorous investigation.

 11. The humanities aren’t really less difficult than the sciences.  Understanding what Plato actually meant, for example, is tougher than experimental physics. It might also be indispensable for theoretical physics. Certainly understanding the true connection between the precise and imaginative use of words and the way things really are is both tougher and rarer than excellence in engineering or genetics.

12. Maybe we just live in a time when the truth about who we are is less valued than ever, or maybe we live in a time when we seem to be able so easily to do without it.

13. It is really true that the negative sides of these propositions apply far less at my Berry College than most places.  And so my students are making these judgments less from their personal college experience than from their reading.

14, It’s also true that Berry students are more likely to find a religious dimension to remedying what’s wrong with higher education today than BIG THINK readers.  But none of these propositions is specifically religious at all.


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