Education in general and particularly higher education is a matter of concern for everyone in the society. While teachers, educationists, scholars, students and researchers are part of the system of education, parents, politicians and the society as a whole are also stakeholders directly or indirectly. Elementary and high-school education is of a general nature and form a base for higher education. It is higher education that shapes the careers and professions of young aspirants. Higher education gives a direction to life and serves as a transition from adolescence to adulthood. It prepares the youth for earning money. The idea that college education is the preparation ground for professions is common but controversial. People have differing opinions about the purpose of higher education. The aim of this paper is to examine the opinions of three experts in this area, to compare and contrast their ideas and to arrive at a conclusion based on the arguments and evidences put forth by them.
Gary Gutting has thoroughly investigated the purpose of college education in his article titled ‘What is College For?’, published in the Opinion pages of New York times dated 14th December 2011. Gary Gutting is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.
Gutting refers to the results of a Pew Research Survey conducted earlier in the year. He interviewed degree holders who had spent four years and substantial amount of money in a college. A majority of the students came out with positive opinions about college education. Some said that it was useful in helping them to grow intellectually, others admitted that it was useful in helping them to grow and mature personally, a lesser number said that it was useful in helping them to prepare for a job or career and a maximum percentage claimed that college had been a good investment for them personally. On the background of these opinions, Guttings points out the incessant talk about the failure of college education. “Because higher education has become so obsessed with fulfilling vocational aims, our larger and collective sense of education is faltering,” ( Abowitz, 2006). He accounts the failure to three reasons: many students cannot access college education because it is too expensive, the admission policies are unfair and the drop-out rate is high.
Pew’s Survey gives a favorable picture of the quality of experience. He observes that the curriculum is meaningless and fails to engage the students academically. The only relevance lies in its provision for training for future employment. Even the professors have ceased to expect genuine engagement and give good grades to average assignments. Gutting argues that this lack of engagement is due to a misunderstanding about what colleges are for. According to him, they are not meant solely for educating students, but are to be perceived as educational hubs where students, teachers, educationists and researchers come together, interact with each other and exchange knowledge. They are places of intellectual culture where knowledge and understanding of disciplines is valued. This attitude affects what goes on in the classrooms. Teachers need to look at themselves as intellectuals who go beyond the practical application of their subjects and extend to their human significance. They are experts who should guide the non-experts and make them aware of the depth of subjects. Students should not depend upon teachers to make the subjects interesting for them; they should try to develop intrinsic interest in the subjects. Gutting does not support the statement that most important learning takes place outside the classrooms. He views the laboratories and libraries as extensions of classrooms. According to him, learning takes place in the classrooms, and they are indispensable.
In his article, Gutting has suggested a new way of looking at the college and its purpose. He opines that if teachers and students change their attitudes, the real purpose of college education will be fulfilled.
E.D. Hirsch, Jr. is an ‘indispensable thinker’ on the topic of higher education, according to Murray. In 1987, he published a book titled ‘Cultural Literacy: What Every American needs to Know’. He pursued technical research in the teaching of reading and writing for twelve years. He has discussed his experiences in the essay ‘Cultural Literacy.’ He has referred to selected experiments on the basis of which he tries to convince the readers about the ways in which Cultural Literacy of a nation can be enhanced. In his essay, Hirsch expresses his concern about a nationwide decline in literacy. His starting point is the verbal SAT scores that chiefly test vocabulary. He has observed that SAT scores show a high correlation with reading and writing skills. Rich vocabulary is an indication of a high level of literacy. History is a subject which is important from the point of view of culture. He focuses his attention on Language and History while discussing the level of cultural literacy. He has traced the level of cultural literacy to the core curriculum that is an important formative element of national culture. An analysis of the national curriculum reveals its formal aspect. The curricula do not give lists of books to be included in the syllabus. The choice of books is left to the local authorities. Hirsch’s chief argument is that national culture is the sum total of the shared knowledge of citizens. Like Hirsch, Bloom also does not see “a unifying core of beliefs holding our culture together,” ( Bloom, 1987). The knowledge is acquired from the books that students study. He makes an important point regarding vocabulary.
According to him, a rich vocabulary is not a purely technical skill. “Knowledge of words is an adjunct to knowledge of cultural realities signified by words, and to whole domains of experience to which words refer.” ( Hirsch, 2001). Texts with specific content create in students a repertoire of words with which they become familiar. Readers can read familiar words with speed, accuracy and better comprehension. Hirsch has provided evidence of experiments that he carried out for arriving at these conclusions. His experiments led him to change his views about formalism. He was convinced that the content of the curriculum is equally important. He conducted experiments to study the effects of writing on reading. The results were anti-intuitive. He discovered that good writing style does not always positively affect reading ability. Once again, the results pointed to common shared knowledge and the idea of acculturation in a country like America where diverse cultures exist side by side.
Hirsch also points out the significant role of politicians. The government must have definite policies about the purpose of higher education because it can exercise control over the curriculum. Hirsch ends his essay with a reference to the SAT scores he mentioned initially. According to him, the evaluators of SAT are implicit makers of the curriculum. They decide the status of cultural literacy. They support a hidden national curriculum. It is better than having no curriculum.
In his essay, Hirsh has pointed out that there is enough research on methodologies and techniques of teaching reading and writing skills. Efforts in this direction will not lead to an increase in the level of cultural literacy. The formal approach is not useful. The other extreme is pluralism. He suggests that the national curriculum needs to be designed between these two extremes. Reading and writing are not skill based; they are a consequence of what he has termed ‘cultural literacy.’ The consequences of cultural literacy approach would be educational, social and political. Implementing them would imply casting aside the educational assumptions of half a century.
A slightly different opinion is expressed by Charles Murray in his article ‘Are Too Many People Going to College?’ The article appeared in the journal ‘The American’ dated 8th September, 2008. The article is adapted from ‘Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools back to Reality.’ Charles Murray is the W.H. Brady scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
He begins the essay with the significant question stated in the title. He quoted John Stuart Mill who opined, “Universities are not intended to teach the knowledge required to fit men for some special mode of gaining their livelihood. Their object is not to make skillful lawyers, or physicians, or engineers, but capable and cultivated human beings.”( J.S. Mill, 1867). Murray also quotes Hirsch’s essay ‘Cultural Literacy.’ Murray associates college with liberal education. His discussion revolves around the implications of possessing or not possessing a BA degree. He points out that where core knowledge will inform students about John Stuart Mill, who he was and the book that he wrote, liberal education will acquaint the students with the contents of the book. He brings to the notice of the readers that for those who wish to pursue the legal profession, college education is necessary and worth the time and cost. They will be paying back by serving the public in the capacity of a lawyer. However, pursuing a practical training course like an electrician’s course is equally rewarding in terms of money, respect and satisfaction. Students join colleges because employers seek degree-holders. The degrees do not have value. According to Murray, the employers “value the BA as a no cost screening device for academic ability and performance,” ( Murray, 2008). The notion of education has changed in recent years. The mode of distance education is becoming increasingly popular. Academicians continue to argue that college education, college environment, face-to-face learning are unique experiences and they cannot be replaced by any other forms of education. Murray is optimistic and gives examples of improvement in technology leading to standard devices and gadgets. He believes that technology will continue to develop until distance learning will be a better option than college education.
The main idea in Murray’s essay is that spending four years in college is unnecessary just for getting a BA degree; there are other alternatives. Four years is a valuable period and students can spend them more fruitfully by pursuing courses that will help them to earn money. If too many people are going to college, there should be no complaints. Everyone has a right to liberal education. Students should choose carefully and not waste time and money by quitting college education half way.
After a careful analysis of the three essays, it is evident that all the three writers share the same concern. All are educators with varying experiences, and they have expressed their opinions about higher education. All of them agree that college education is chiefly perceived as a means to prepare students for a job and all are against this kind of education. All agree that something is wrong with college education, and that a change is necessary. Gutting suggests a change in the attitude of faculty and students. He shares the opinion of Hirsch that the curriculum is faulty and fails to engage the students. He believes that there is no replacement for college education. This is opposite to Murray’s contention that distance learning is a better alternative. Hirsch has devised the term ‘cultural literacy,’ and expresses concern for its decline. According to Hirsch, the fault lies in the core curriculum. He suggests that the curriculum should be more specific and provide lists of books from which local authorities can choose. Gutting does not mention what kind of changes should be made in the curriculum. Hirsch gives importance to English language and History.
According to Murray, all the students who join college lack the potential to succeed in college. If they quit half way, time money and efforts are wasted. The BA degree is not essential for every individual. Murray is in favor of changing modes like distance education. Gutting would say that college is a place where teachers should be committed to their disciplines and help their students to adapt to the academic environment. He does not raise any doubts about the potential of students. Hirsch also does not talk about the potentials of students. Gutting believes that the problem is within the teachers and students; Hirsch believes that it is in the curriculum. Gutting and Hirsch share a faith in colleges as significant and essential centers of higher education. Murray finds fault with the approach to college education, the necessity of a BA degree and available alternatives. He holds the students responsible for making the right choice. He considers distance learning as a better alternative in the modern age. He questions the very necessity of a college degree for every student. Colleges, he states are places of liberal education. Each student does not possess enough competencies to go deep into a subject and acquire liberal education.
“American higher education is so diverse that sweeping generalizations about the overall condition of higher education are meaningless,” ( Lucas, 1996). Every individual aspires to enhance his qualifications. Colleges award degrees which are certificates of achievements. Some students may pursue studies on the personal level, but their achievements have no value without certification. The satisfaction of certification comes from a college degree. At the same time, it is true that “Years of phenomenal growth and prosperity for higher education have masked dormant ills,” ( Buchanan, 1995). I agree with John Stuart Mill’s notion of University education and Gutting’s perspective of a college as a place where people of common interests come together and benefit from each other. Colleges cannot be replaced just as shrines cannot be replaced. A BA degree is not a complete waste according to me. Hirsch’s core cultural curriculum implemented in a kind of college suggested by Gutting would be a model of higher education. At the same time, an open mind that takes into account the practical aspects and admits new modes like distance education as proposed by Murray would be an additional benefit.
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Bloom, Allan David. The Closing Of The American Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987. Print.
Buchanan, Holly Shipp. 'The Quality Movement In Higher Education In The United States'. Health Libraries Review 12.3 (1995): 141-146. Print.
Gutting, Gary. 'What Is College For?'. The New York Times 2011: 1-4. Web. 26 Oct. 2014.
Hirsch, Eric Donald. Cultural Literacy. New York: Vintage Books, a division of Random House, 1988. Print.
Lucas, Christopher J. Crisis In The Academy. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996. Print.
Murray, Charles. 'Are Too Many People Going To College?'. The American 2008: 1-5. Web. 26 Oct. 2014.