Higher education: when relevance is not enough

It is understandable that we want higher education to be relevant and useful. The nation needs more highly trained workers if we are to remain globally competitive. The American economy needs more nurses, engineers, and welders. Taxpayers want to know that their trillion-dollar investment in federally funded student loans is a sound investment. Families need the assurance that their college graduates will earn enough to repay those student loans.

All of these realities strengthen the current public drum beat calling for college credentialing that is quicker, less costly and more immediately linked to specific entry-level jobs — preferably ones that also pay well. Higher education, for its own sake and for the sake of the public, must respond. It must speak directly to the questions of relevance and usefulness that arise especially in times of economic and political anxiety and uncertainty. It must speak in language that makes sense to prospective students and their families, to alumni burdened with student debt, to taxpayers, to employers, and to the government. Higher education has a special responsibility in these times to help current students translate their education into the categories of the marketplace.

Higher education that merely passes the social test of relevance and utility has fallen short of its responsibility to the public good. In these times, it falls to higher education itself both to meet the short-term requirements born of fear and economic stress and to fulfill the longer-term social obligations that higher education owes to its culture–and that it alone is best equipped to fill.

An education that is merely relevant to the technological and economic needs of this moment will not be adequate to reckon with a pace of change that is unprecedented in human history. An education that prepares students only with the skills necessary to get their first jobs will have failed them miserably to prepare them for a lifetime of learning how to learn and how to cope with the uncertainty and ambiguity that change brings inside and outside of the job market. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average person born between 1957 and 1964 held 11.3 jobs between the ages of 18 and 46. We should expect at least this much transition in the lives of our graduates today.

An education geared only to the realities of now will fail to provide graduates with the creative tools to imagine what is possible and the sense of social responsibility to realize that vision. Higher education, in contrast to institutions that specialize in job training, has traditionally borne a responsibility to cultivate curiosity for its own sake, to raise questions that no one else is yet asking, to carry on pure research that no one is yet requesting and to invite students into larger worlds than they have yet imagined. When higher education is preparing students only for effectiveness in the world they know when they enter college, when it is only responding to the questions students bring with them, it is failing in the task of creating visionary leaders and innovative problem solvers for our society–leaders who see not only what is, but what might be.

Much is made today of figures like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and other geniuses who dropped out of college–they are notable primarily as exceptions to the rule. The overwhelming number of college dropouts remain just that. They earn much less on an average over the course of a lifetime than college graduates and are more than twice as likely to be unemployed in times of economic downturn.

Finally, an education directed too closely to ensuring success for individuals in the categories of today–especially narrowly economic categories–will fail to create for our society the supportive and protective buffer of a “loyal opposition.” This marvelous term from the British House of Commons speaks of a class of people highly invested in the system (in the case of the House of Commons, the party currently out of power), but equally invested in seeing where the current operation of the system can be improved. Part of the traditional responsibility of higher education to society is to educate individuals who think about the society itself–how it works, how the current realities fit into longer-term patterns and perspectives, how it ought to work, and how we might go about making constructive change. These students have studied not just “useful” or “relevant” disciplines like computer science, biology and business, but the classic disciplines of history, literature, philosophy and theology that place our current moment into a larger perspective. They are prepared with the critical thinking skills, the communication skills, and the moral foundations to help a society see itself, and to call it to account when it is failing to live up to its ideals.

Yes, in certain moments of cultural stress, higher education must take special pains to meet the tests of relevance and usefulness. In doing so, we must not abdicate the larger and longer-term responsibility to prepare the next generation to steward the values of integrity, creativity, freedom, and self-criticism that have continued to make America a symbol of hope and progress throughout the world even to this day.

Shirley A. Mullen has been president of Houghton College since 2006.