What Lies Beneath the Rhetoric

The dynamic series of events at UVa in June have come to represent a critical debate at the heart of higher education in the 21st century: progress vs. tradition. The Washington Post effectively summed this up in their characterizations of Dragas and Sullivan. In the coming months, many colleges and universities will likely reflect on the events in Charlottesville as they determine what type of institution they want to be. Beneath the concerns of finance, relevance, and reputation, it will be extremely important to remember who stands to gain or lose the most in these decisions: the students.

On one side of the discussion is the competitiveness and stability of the institution in an ever-changing, global marketplace. Students are commonly addressed by assessment, graduation, and job placement data in response to insecurities about declining government aid, rising student debt, skill competition with students in developing countries, and a sluggish job market. Streamlining the cost effectiveness of course delivery and updating the learning platforms for the millennial mindset may prove to be successful adaptations to these concerns. But what aspect of the college experience is compromised? I’m not sure if I know the answer to this, but I suspect it’s something intangible that sparks creativity and shapes character.

On the other side of the conversation is the priceless and timeless magic that has defined higher education for centuries. The environment that honors the free and open quest for knowledge, inspiration, and discovery and that celebrates the ideas of departments, students, and faculty, not what they generate in terms of dollar signs and academic market share. But a stubborn allegiance to traditions may compromise much for our students. Whereas the collegiate campus provides a supportive environment for learning and tolerance, our students will not always be there. If students are not prepared to take the first steps after graduation to build a future that supports life-long learning and meaningful engagement with their communities, tradition will need a significant make over.

The proper formula is still a mystery. But as these debates continue, students should drive the rhetoric.

2 responses

  1. As it turns out, Kevin, I’ve got a rather thick packet of essays that I’ve got to get through before I attend the seminar on the future of the liberal arts later this month, and all the essays in there deal, in one way or another, with this basic question: What purpose should a university/college serve? The question has quite a rich history. The ancestors of both sides of the UVa debate are well represented in what I’m reading. I’ll share the packet with you when I’m done with it.

  2. Great! Thanks, Richard. I’m eager to hear how the seminar goes. Does this question also address whom is served? Students? Employers? Nation? Globe?

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