Over the past week there has been a lot of hand wringing in American higher education over a recent study by the Pew Research Center, “Is College Worth It?.” The study, conducted with The Chronicle of Higher Education, makes it abundantly clear that a growing majority of American adults no longer believes that higher education in the United States is worth the cost. This finding conflicts with another finding in the study–that an overwhelming majority of American college graduates think their degree was worth what they spent on that degree.
In other words, in my case, college was worth it, but in general, it’s not.
The Chronicle story devotes a fair amount of space to the argument that higher education should not be about workforce preparation, citing critiques of a workforce focus from both college presidents and faculty. But the story, and the data from Pew, also point out that there are very discernible class differences when it comes to the question of the purpose of higher education. The wealthier an institution is, the more likely a president is to pooh-pooh any talk of better preparation for that first job after college.
Don’t get me wrong–I’m a firm believer in the value of the liberal arts over the long term and have no interest in teaching history as a purely job preparation program. But those who want to draw a line in the sand in the defense of the liberal arts (Job preparation has no, NO place in our curriculum!) make that case with zero data to support their arguments.
Where are the data to show that “critical thinking skills” are a virtual guarantee of professional success? I think such skills are very important, but I don’t know they are. In what field of scholarly endeavor do we let our students make assertions unsupported by evidence? Certainly not history.
After reading the Pew study, it seems to me that one plausible explanation of the growing restiveness among American adults when it comes to the value of a college degree is that over the past couple of decades we’ve been shifting the cost of higher education from the taxpayer to the user (student). The more a college degree becomes a private good–something a majority of the presidents surveyed supported–the more the purchaser of that private good is going to demand in terms of tangible results.
In educational systems where higher education remains a public good–much of Europe, for instance–the public is much more likely to support the idea that intellectual pursuits ought to remain the core mission of colleges and universities. When it is everyone who pays, rather than just those paying out of their own pockets, it seems to me, people will be more willing to see the cost/benefit of higher education in more abstract terms.
Which brings us go the five page paper.
Raise your hand if you can quantify, in any way, the direct benefit to your students of the five page paper (or some other length essay) you assigned this past year. Indirect benefits don’t count. I want hands only from those of you who can show tangible, direct benefits.
I’m not completely opposed to essay writing. I assign essays (although much less often than I used to). I think they have value, but I don’t know they do. In particular, I think they help my students organize their thinking about certain topics, they help me help them with their writing, and they help me see where their research and/or analytical skills need work. Note that two of these benefits are diagnostic. And yes, me being able to help them with their writing, research, and analysis helps them become more educated and, I think, over the long term, more successful in whatever they chose to do when they graduate.
I think these things.
What I know is that my students will need to get jobs when they graduate and that their future employers have every right to expect certain skills and knowledge from our graduates. As much as I’d like to wish otherwise, few of those employers are going to want their future employees to be able to explain the causes of the revolutions of 1989 in East Central Europe. Nor will they want a five page essay on nationalist movements in the Czech lands.
With each passing year I have, therefore, tried to incorporate more of what might be called “real world skills” in my classes. The work that my students now do is still very much history, but they write fewer and fewer papers. Instead, they spend more and more time on work they can point to in a job application or a graduate school application. At least some of what they learn while doing this work–archival metadata standards, a deeper understanding of the tensions between fair use and copyright, how to deal with a project team member who is a slacker–is going to be of interest to future employers.
They still learn why communist parties in East Central Europe went belly up in 1989, because I think it’s important for educated people, especially history majors, to know such things. They just write about it less than they used to.
Will my approach cure the restiveness of the American public when it comes to university educations? Not likely. But every little bit helps.