Bohanon: A Critical Look at Higher Education

March 30, 2015

by Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D.

Gallons of ink have been spilled over the problems of higher education — and rightfully so. Colleges and universities have been given the task of remedying all kinds of problems from income inequality to cancer. Too often collegiate administrators and their in-house publicists have encouraged the view that higher education is a cure-all for social ills. Nothing is as dangerous as an oversold product.

My cynical side says that university education, originally meant to provide young adults with a broad liberal education, has degenerated into vocational training with political correctness. In any case, higher-ed costs have been rising and academic standards have been falling, and the value of a college degree is being called into question.

There are numerous experiments in alternatives to very expensive residential brick-and-mortar colleges. Eventually some will provide low-cost and credible “certificates of fitness” for white-collar jobs. So what will become of residential undergraduate colleges and universities?

I am convinced that the four-year college is not destined to go the way of the dodo — if we can rediscover and embrace a very old and noble goal of education: the development of personal character.

Character education conjures up the image of pompous professors spouting dull and moralizing lectures. This is not what I have in mind. Rather it seems to me that personal success in any aspect of life requires a combination of knowledge, sociability and trustworthiness. How is this accomplished? By acquiring knowledge and practicing sociability and trustworthiness.

A business student should understand basis points on a loan and own-price elasticity of demand for a product. Acquisition of this knowledge may well be effectively achieved in an impersonal setting.

However, a student should also know how to apply this knowledge to real world problems. She should be able to explain the relevant use of this knowledge to others with whom she is working. This requires that she is working with others on a common project of mutual importance long before her first job. Such interaction requires a degree of sociability. If the common project has a life beyond a single class period, then the student must also demonstrate trustworthiness to both her peers and supervisors.

The virtues of sociability and trustworthiness are best developed by practice, not rote learning, exactly what the residential undergraduate experience can provide. If all those involved in undergraduate education — students, faculty, advisers and administrators — are mindful that a major component of education includes meaningful team efforts, then education and character development become seamlessly integrated in classroom, co-curricular and extra-curricular activities. This, I think, is exactly what the newly found emphasis on experiential learning at both my and many other universities hopes to accomplish.

Here is a modest example. Over the last decade, I have been very fortunate to work with a group of outstanding students in the Economic Club. We have sponsored speakers on campus, held social events and offered a two-day field trip to the financial district in Chicago. None of this has been for academic credit, although I am convinced our activities have been as valuable as formal coursework. Recently an alumnus of the club offered to support our current effort, noting that “the Econ Club helped me mature, and I would like to pass on the legacy.” I don’t think this can be accomplished in distance education. Four-year college can be worth the price — if we let it.

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