What is College For?

… and What is Education for, for that Matter?

It seems easier and easier to question the residential four-year college experience–and the liberal arts bachelors degree that legitimizes it. With exorbitant tuition price tags and a highly challenging post-graduate labor market, college may seem an unnecessary luxury. At worst, it may simply be an expensive way for families to encourage self-indulgence in their children who are on the verge of adulthood. Indeed, the fiscal and political pressures on four-year college programs–regardless of whether they are in state universities and colleges or part of private institutions, whether they are highly selective and have high tuition or are more accessible to a wider range of applicants–are enormous. Is college education worth the upfront cost … and does the content and form of that education really buy you a rich source of healthy, lifelong dividend-yielding capital–in the form of maturation, knowledge, problem-solving skills, and values–that will make it a really smart investment?

Now if I didn’t take the question of educational value seriously, I would be pretty irresponsible as a college professor. This past Tuesday, I was fortunate to have an inspiring opportunity to reflect over this question and my fundamental professional responsibilities to take it seriously. Author, scholar and college instructor Andrew Delbanco was down here at Emory, visiting from Columbia University. He spoke to a gathering of students, faculty members, and (quite strikingly) top administrators, including Emory University President Jim Wagner and Dean of Emory College Robin Forman. The topic of of Dr. Delbanco’s talk was simply the title of this post. What is college for? This is clearly short for, “Is the four-year residential liberal arts bachelors degree model really something that defines a worthwhile upfront investment, yielding indispensibly valuable returns over the graduate’s lifetime? Or has it become a waste that should be replaced by cheaper, more focused and flexible, technology-dependent training programs?”

It is certainly heartening that students, my faculty colleagues, and I were joined by President Wagner, Dean Forman, and other dean-level administrators. After all, remember the fiscal and political pressures that require university and college administrators to make difficult budget choices and compromises that may ostensibly be necessary for short-term economic solvency but that have surprising long-term costs. Despite the impact that these pressures have on the margins of higher-education programs, the liberal arts four-year degree remains the most important step in higher education achievement in the United States. And as Delbanco pointed out in his talk, the potential of the American liberal arts undergraduate educational model is extraordinary, so far outstripping today’s all-too-economically and politically compromised reality, that even a little idealism and reinvestment in the liberal arts will go a long way toward raising the bar.

So what is this potential based on? Delblanco writes in the introduction to his recent book What College Was, Is, and Should Be (Princeton University Press 2013):

At its core, a college should be a place where young people find help for navigating the territory between adolescence and adulthood. It should provide guidance, but not coercion, for students trying to cross that treacherous terrain on their way toward self-knowledge. It should help them develop certain qualities of mind and heart requisite for reflective citizenship. Here is my own attempt at reducing these qualities to a list, in no particular order of priority, since they are inseparable from one another:

1. A skeptical discontent with the present, informed by a sense of the past.

2. The ability to make connections among seemingly disparate phenomena.

3. Appreciation of the natural world, enhanced by knowledge of science and the arts.

4. A willingness to imagine experience from perspectives other than one’s own.

5. A sense of ethical responsibility.

These habits of thought and feeling are hard to attain and harder to sustain. They cannot be derived from exclusive study of the humanities, the natural sciences, or the social sciences, and they cannot be fully developed solely by academic study, no matter how well “distributed” or “rounded.” It is absurd to imagine them as commodities to be purchased by and delivered to student consumers. Ultimately they make themselves known not in grades or examinations but in the way we live our lives.

Basically, these four years of learning, practicing that learning, exploring, reflecting, experiencing, and discovering–well, all of these interconnected ways of being and engaging with life define a critical threshold, an extended rite of passage that is not about incorporating any other ideology than that of a sustained and sustaining desire for learning, a respect and drive to develop critical thinking skills, a willingness to communicate (including listening effectively), a commitment to approach new situations and strangers who are different from us with respect and tolerance, and a recognition that all of these stances and abilities are ways of living in our complex, highly social, unpredictable worlds … so that we make informed judgments and actions (especially with an emphasis on carefully evaluating how best to strike the balance between the costs and benefits of short-term versus long-term solutions). And as Delblanco so poignantly discussed in his talk at Emory, a recognition and fully embodied appreciation that this liberal arts worldview and way of living is, in itself, also a way to ENJOY life.

I cannot do justice here to Delblanco’s inspiring, holistic argument in favor of the liberal arts educational experience. I plan to address more specific aspects of his book in other posts. What is clear is that he offers a spirited call to find more effective ways of aspiring toward the potential that the four-year liberal arts model offers to transform us into more tolerant, curious, creative, courageous people–at once engaged, appreciative, and critical in our globalizing, complex world.

There are a couple of particular things to think about, though, that build on Andrew Delbanco’s moving defense of the liberal arts college experience. That is, as we think about how to make that experience “what college should be.” The first is in discussing why American popular and political culture does not value the reflective, intellectual transformation that a liberal arts ideal reaches for. This is the question that my wife, Dr. Liv Nilsson Stutz (lecturer in Anthropology at Emory), posed during the question and answer session after Delbanco’s talk. Basically, is it because Americans are too pragmatic or focused on the belief that tomorrow’s innovations and prosperity will always be better and bigger (Delblanco’s tentative suggestion)? Is American culture too focused on sport as key metaphor–that it’s really about winning, rather than on reflecting, being tolerant, and coming to a new insight or decision? (This was Liv’s suggestion to me after the lecture, and I’ve echoed this in my posts on symbolic violence in American culture.) Or is it some combination of factors (including religious practice and the religious dimensions of contested political ideologies in the United States)?

In any case, a defense of college needs to be made. College arguably can and should be more integrally vital than ever to American culture and to a sustainable future. This is also a more substantial, far-sighted argument for expanding access to college. The underlying causes of the correlation between attaining a college degree and higher lifelong earnings likely include the creativity, tolerance, resilience, critical thinking, and communicaton skills one builds on and develops in college. These are embodied capacities and values that one can continue to use and build on throughout life after college.

The second thing that Delbanco’s talk got me thinking about is not about how to increase the symbolic value–in the substantial, critically engaged way that I just described, rather than as a simple index of social status–of the college degree. Instead, it is about what builds the grade school educational foundation for college readiness. Rarely do we talk explicitly about primary and secondary education as intrinsically interconnected to higher education in a continuous process. We tend to accept the system as given: primary and secondary education get you minimally ready for adult life, including being ready to apply for and begin college. But then college tends to be seen as a quantum leap away (and not necessarily up) from the primary education level. This, despite the fact that the particular kinds of critical thinking and communication learning outcomes for successful grade schools and their students overlap extensively (albeit usually with less complex or extensive problems, exams, and assignments to measure achievement, even in advanced placement high school courses). In other words, the best graduating high school seniors are usually really well prepared for critical thinking and communication in beginning college, but no one engages them in an ongoing conversation about how their previous education will CONTINUE in an unbroken process, although perhaps at a greater velocity, in college.

This leads me to my final point. Some key knowledge content from 20th and 21st Century social science and biological science research is really relevant for rethinking human life histories as educational life histories. Consider the figure above left. Here, I introduce my “anthropological” modification of the recently revised, expanded version of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (more on this later). What I include from the new taxonomy, developed by the late Lorin Anderson and his colleagues, is the decomposition of the original teaching and learning taxonomy into two dimensions: cognitive process and knowledge content. These are shown along the column (cognitive processes) and row (knowledge forms) headings in the figure at left. Where I modified the updated framework was in taking out the 24 individual learning processes that may be defined at each intersection of the six columns and four rows; these I replaced with double-arrows and dashed or dotted lines along boundaries at critical thresholds between key adjacent columns and rows. Because, basically, as I tried to map on more general, “real world” learning processes not necessarily seen in modern formal education, but characteristic of our long life histories and intensely social and technological lives in all cultural settings, I realized that the updated Bloom’s taxonomy was an improved sociocognitive model of enculturation, social practice, and agency. It is not only useful for defining more specific, hierarchically and sequentially organized learning goals within formal education programs. The new taxonomy is a flexible model for decomposing how humans learn, incorporate into long-term memory, use, and tweak complex embodied cognitive skills that are knowledge-content-dependent, in order to engage in the world. In fact, the new taxonomy may be useful for investigating the emergent basis of human consciousness, as arguably all but the last column apply to complex memory and embodied cognition in most vertebrates, and at least monkeys, apes, and probably some other mammal lineages exhibit some level of conscious social agency.

Now note how the build-up from simply incorporating and remembering things, patterns, and symbols (upper left cells) … and on to reflecting via meta-cognition (perceptual simulation, introspection) over what you have learned … and eventually integrating more specific knowledge into a dynamic, powerful system of cognitively engaging in the world (lower right cells). What I would suggest is that–returning to the formal education context–once we reach secondary (high school) education, we deploy this process across the whole table on much shorter timescales than those of the months or semesters or school years across which teachers usually use Bloom’s taxonomy to build up toward more creative, applied, or explanatory critical thinking and communication objectives. It may take more time (months) for an infant effectively to “go through the new Bloom’s table” to learn connections between uttering what turn out to be basic consonantal and vocalic phoneme combinations (infant babbling, like “ba ba ba ba ma ma ma ma ma”) and more complex auditory and visual stimulus patterns encountered when parents achieve joint attention with the infant (mom, dad or other caregivers talking to the infant) … or even when the infant observes others (siblings, parents, etc.) interactively speaking while dynamically engaged in visual joint attention patterns. It may not take so long for a high school or college student to work through the table to figure out and begin to use effectively basic terminology, in achieving practical and introspective use of foundational concepts in geometry, chemistry, or Spanish. What we need to think about is how this learning process can facilitate not only recursive, more effective critical thinking–in order to facilitate connections between basic concepts (like molecular weight, concentration and molarity) and more complex ones (like regulatory biochemical cycles in living cells)… But also understanding–and practical use of that understanding–to gain a sense of what college is for. During and after your college education.


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