Two conflicting visions of higher education, Part I

Editor’s note: Higher education policy must begin with a vision and a sense of purpose, without which it becomes an incoherent jumble that contradicts itself and pulls in conflicting directions. One problem facing academia today is that it has long been largely subject to one vision, and now a very different, competing vision is emerging that seeks grand reforms. 

Today’s Pope Center commentary presents versions of both visions. The first, by Eric Johnson, a freelance writer who also works in financial aid for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, expresses his vision of higher education that has long been established—a liberal one, if you like. The second version (accessible here) is by the Pope Center’s director of policy analysis, Jay Schalin; it is primarily a conservative vision of higher education. Both writers are speaking only for themselves and not their organizations—nor for any political institution.

American universities are chaotic by design to promote democratic learning 

By Eric Johnson

American higher education is a grand mess. But there is purpose in the apparent chaos of public universities; they are designed to protect free inquiry by equal citizens into the wide universe of subjects that concern a growing and vibrant country. 

Our universities mix classical teaching with practical skill-building. They offer esoteric exploration of the arts and humanities alongside applied research in science and health. They comprise distinct scholarly communities, but are not isolated from the world. They aim to teach the best of established thought and encourage uncomfortable new ideas. They provide space for both deep exploration and the tackling of immediate civic and economic problems. 

We made them this way on purpose. The hybrid university represents a distinctly American enterprise, a remaking of an old-world institution to serve a radically new country and a new conception of citizenship. 

For centuries, European universities existed both to transmit knowledge and to hoard it. By design, they helped sustain a hereditary elite, with only a privileged few granted access to a narrow curriculum. But for higher education to work in the land of the free—our grand experiment in democracy, born in rebellion and suspicious of authority—universities had to serve the whole citizenry.  

Marilynne Robinson, a contemporary novelist and scholar, has framed the distinction beautifully: “The whole point of the land grant system has been to create an elite so large the name no longer serves, to create a ruling class that is more or less identical with the population.” 

Foreigners found this idea distasteful right from the start. English critic Matthew Arnold, who defined culture as “the best which has been thought and said,” found our culture lacking and our universities vulgar. “It is an institution built on a misconception of what culture truly is and calculated to produce miners or engineers or architects and not sweetness and light,” Arnold wrote, rather sniffily, in 1882.  

Part of our national genius is the realization that mining and engineering aren’t opposed to sweetness and light, and that a free citizen must be ready to use both his mind and his hands. (Mens et Manus—“Mind and Hand”—can still be found on the seals of schools like MIT and North Carolina A&T.) 

Certainly, American universities weren’t the first to combine teaching and practical research. German institutions were enormously influential in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, developing seminars and laboratories and a spirit of inquiry that remain familiar features of modern academia. But German universities were not fundamentally democratic, and their glory did not survive the political upheavals of the 1930s.  

Former University of North Carolina president Edward Kidder Graham called on our public universities to honor our national creed of “Democracy and Work,” in contrast to the aristocratic ideals of leisure and caste that dominated early English universities: 

[A] true university is not merely a place where some fortunate few may come to know and to feel fine and beautiful things. It must also be a place where all men may learn to do well all things that need to be done.

This is why a student at public universities can major in philosophy or marketing—or both. A classics major can learn computer science, and an aspiring dental hygienist can perfect her painting. The rest of the world once found this silly; now they’re racing to build American-style colleges. 

Universities do play a crucial role in preserving and passing on foundational principles of philosophy and politics. But our society’s openness to new ideas, new challenges, and new people has always been a tremendous national strength. This productive tension between preserving and challenging evolved to become part of our academic culture. 

Public universities, at their best, also abide by the democratic insight that intellect and capacity are not exclusive to any particular class. And talent can be broadened through cultivation. Thomas Jefferson favored extensive public education as the means to protect the nation from a stifling elite. A public system extending all the way to college, he believed, would permit virtue and genius to be “sought out from every condition of life, and completely prepared by education for defeating the competition of wealth and birth for public trusts.” 

We don’t always know where the potential for achievement resides, and we are bad at predicting it. Opening wide the doors of our public universities means tolerating a higher rate of failure, but it helps preserve the opportunity for talent and drive to emerge from unlikely places.  

Other countries are more rigid, testing children at a young age to determine who will get a shot at higher education and who will be steered away. We could give that a try. It might feel more efficient in the short-run, and we could certainly boost college graduation rates. But it would be profoundly statist, and it would undermine the personal freedom and opportunity that have made our universities the envy of the world.

American higher education seems—and often is—a raucous mess. But that is the nature of a sprawling, argumentative, rebellious collection of free-thinkers trying to work and learn and debate. Just like the country that made us.

(Editor’s note: Part II of this debate, featuring Jay Schalin’s conservative vision of higher education, is available here.)