‘What’s the Point of College?’

Johann Neem discusses his new book about the need to affirm -- and strengthen -- the liberal arts at a time when reformers are doubting their value and that of higher education.

September 24, 2019
 

Johann N. Neem is in some ways an unlikely contributor to the cacophony of book-length argumentations about the value (or perceived lack of it) of a college degree today.

First, he's an historian of the American revolution, accustomed to looking backward more than ahead. Second, the chair and professor of history at Western Washington University has focused much of his scholarly work on the emergence of public education at the elementary and secondary level.

But a decade ago, Neem's scholarly and personal interest in access and quality in education led him to cast his thoughtful gaze on the post-high school landscape, too. In a series of essays for Inside Higher Ed, among other writings, he questioned the spread of online education, challenged the "disruption" meme in higher education and championed the liberal arts.

His new book, What's the Point of College? Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform (Johns Hopkins University Press), builds on those earlier writings to make an impassioned case for what college is (and isn't) and should (and shouldn't) be. He answered questions about the book via email.

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Q: I wonder if you’d start by defining what you mean by the term “college” in your title, since I think there can be a lot of confusion by what different people mean when they use the term: pursuit of a bachelor’s degree at a four-year college, study in the liberal arts and sciences, or any post-high school education or training. Or do you think the “purpose” contained in your subtitle is similar across all of those realms, such that the distinction isn’t important?

A: This is a good question. I thought about doing a history of the term “college.” Technically, a college is not necessarily a liberal arts institution or a university. It is a gathering, a coming together for shared purposes. However, the history of America’s colleges and universities is such that we have come to use the term “college” to refer to the four-year baccalaureate experience. We do sometimes use college in other ways -- like technical college, beauty college, clown college, the Electoral College, etc., and they are all fair uses. But I am talking about the tradition of following a course of study that leads to a bachelor’s degree (even though I think the purpose is the course of study, not the degree).

As a result, I am not referring to any form of postsecondary education, but to the kind that ought to take place in those spaces and places that we think of when we think of colleges and universities. These institutions, dating back to colonial times and before, have long had some deep connection to the liberal arts tradition, as well as to certain forms of professional training in such fields as theology and medicine.

Every college has a purpose, and it should choose what is important, unimportant and even unacceptable based on its purpose. What matters at a clown college or an institute of technology is not the same thing that matters at a baccalaureate institution. For baccalaureate institutions, academic values provide the criteria -- these colleges exist to cultivate the life of the mind.

I want to make clear, however, that I am not arguing that baccalaureate institutions are better or worse, or higher or lower, or harder or easier, than other kinds of schools. I simply think one should go to college to pursue a liberal education. After that, if one wants job training, they should go to a technical college, participate in an apprenticeship or go to graduate or professional school. But college itself is not to prepare for specific jobs.

Q: You draw a very sharp distinction between getting a “basic liberal education in the arts and sciences” (which you say every American needs) and training for a job. And you say we “do ourselves an injustice when we conflate liberal college education and vocational and technical education or presume that one is prior to the other.” But many people expect a four-year degree to prepare them for a life of work as well as helping them learn how to “acquire and use knowledge to interpret the world,” which, if I’m reading you right, is “the point of college.” Is it wrong to think a degree can do both things?

A: This question builds on my answer to your first question. When I say that one is not prior to the other, I challenge the idea that someone with a physics or English degree who becomes a barista or a carpenter has “wasted” their education since they are not “using” the degree. If the purpose of college is to create more insightful generally educated people curious about the world, the benefits of that education are real (for the individual and our country) no matter what job a person chooses to do.

That’s why I do not think a four-year degree should prepare one for work in a narrow way. In a broader sense, however, all of us have a duty to contribute to the economy in order to provide the services and produce the goods on which we all depend. A thoughtful, educated person will be able to do these things more effectively and will also understand the purposes of their work more deeply. As a result, there are clear economic benefits to a broad general education in the arts and sciences.

That’s why employers constantly want liberally educated graduates. But we also need people trained to do technical and specialized work -- whether it be carpentry, brain surgery, dental hygiene or computer programming. I believe there should be institutions and programs for people to do that, but not the undergraduate course of study pursued at baccalaureate institutions. I don’t think the multiversity works. To invoke Clark Kerr, we need more to unite the collegiate experience than a concern for parking or climbing walls or even credits and degrees.

I also don’t think vocational and liberal education can be done well in the same course of study. First, they often have very different ethical orientations, so if part of what constitutes a good college education is a commitment to thinking as a worthy activity on its own terms, studying primarily to learn a trade does not develop students’ character in the right way. Second, often vocational/professional programs have courses that are narrowly tailored to train people for specific tasks, rather than broadly oriented to providing insight in the world for its own sake. In this sense, a good college education is foundational and general, and that is OK.

Q: Some of your ideas for restoring emphasis on the liberal arts and sciences are radical, like ending the business major. Can you briefly lay out your case for this, and could it possibly happen?

A: The case for ending business majors is pretty simple. I start by asking what is college for. Majors or courses of study that do not fit -- and this can extend beyond business to certain health and technical majors as well -- have no reason to be there. I believe that, whatever financial payoff the business major may have, it detracts from the fundamental kinds of study that people in college should be doing. From this perspective, having business majors is “unethical” because it goes against, and in fact can undermine, the ethos that collegiate institutions ought to cultivate. Business majors, I argue, have college degrees, but not a college education. This is not to say that business itself is unethical -- most of us will work in the private sector providing goods and services to each other.

The case against business majors is made stronger by the fact that business degrees do not necessarily have the economic benefits we grant them. Yes, they can lead to good salaries, but that may well have nothing to do with the education that business majors receive. It may be because business programs are integrated into the workforce and offer students internships, etc. It may be because the students who choose to major in them are seeking certain kinds of things out of their lives -- or that money matters more to them. But when business leaders list the kinds of skills they want, they are usually talking about skills generated more effectively through studying the arts and sciences. That’s why I think our economy would be stronger, and people might even earn more, if they did not major in business.

Of course, there are fields, like accounting, that require specialized training. But, as I said earlier, these kinds of specialized programs need not exist in baccalaureate institutions. We have barbers’ colleges; we can have business colleges. But to mix them up on the same campus as the liberal arts and sciences creates confusion of purpose and undermines the kind of scholarly environment that a good college ought to foster.

Q: While you obviously believe deeply in America’s colleges and universities, you suggest that they may not remain “academic institutions” if professors “cannot resist managerial and political efforts to promote the bottom line over the public good.” You lay out some scenarios for how professors might continue to promote academic teaching and research outside their colleges and universities. I’m particularly intrigued by the “yoga option” -- can you explain that (and, pardon my analogy, but isn’t that a little bit like what instructors have done through the MOOCs and places like Udacity and Udemy)?

A: Thank you for this question. Yes, I conclude that if colleges and universities continue along the track that so many books (whether in praise or condemnation) have laid out, they will no longer be academic institutions. If the liberal arts and sciences move to the margins to be replaced by vocational degrees (whether in business or STEM), and research is only valued for its market value rather than truth value, then the academic idea of an institution committed to truth seeking in teaching and scholarship will also disappear. So, I write in my book, let’s not conflate the academy with the university. Historically, they have developed together, but not always, and perhaps not for the future.

The “yoga option” imagines that when academics are forced to or choose to abandon the university, they will have to develop new practices, new networks for teaching and producing knowledge, and new clients. Just as yoga teachers, herbalists, masseuses, music teachers and karate instructors open their own studios, so could academics. And just like all the examples mentioned, there would continue to be forms of apprenticeship and mastery, and networks through which practitioners learn. People study karate and music independent of colleges and universities. I believe that they will also seek enlightenment through the arts and sciences.

Is it like a MOOC? No. First, profit would not be the motive. Yes, like all people, academics will want to make a living, but they will be producing teaching and knowledge directly, not having it mediated through organizations like Udacity that alienate their labor. Second, it would remain personal and local, empowering rather than disempowering communities of scholars. And, third, the goal would be to develop meaningful relationships among scholars and between scholars and students, rather than to produce standardized mass products to offer quick, cheap degrees. The health of the academy requires thousands of people to be engaged in the collective enterprise of knowledge production and sharing. We need scholars. MOOCs undermine the community of academics by allowing a few “stars” (who would not be stars, I note in the book, without the academy behind them) to dominate the field. MOOCs are about monopoly and power, not knowledge.

Q: You didn’t talk about this in the book, but others have suggested that the phrase “liberal education” is a problem politically and otherwise. Do you buy that, and have you seen a thoughtful and appropriate alternative?

A: I don’t even want to go there. We cannot live in a society so inane that a word that has such deep (and complicated and contested) historical meanings and tradition cannot be used because superficial linkages with the left and with left-leaning scholars. I do not think the liberal tradition is inherently progressive or conservative, in today’s meaning of those terms; it is capacious enough to sustain a conversation that includes people who consider themselves progressive or conservative. The word has its root in liberty and in liberalism, which is one of our nation’s core political traditions. The fact that we are even having this conversation suggests a) the idea of branding and managerial speak has gotten in the way of intellectual integrity and b) we need more liberally educated adults who recognize that the arts and sciences are valuable for people across the political spectrum. True conservatives already know that, which is why conservatives have often been among our nation’s leading advocates for liberal education.

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