Sometimes we forget to appreciate what is most valuable to us until we are on the verge of losing it. I fear this is the situation we are in with American higher education – a system most believe has been the best in the world. At times awareness of what matters most is restored by the comments or behavior of outside people who value and appreciate what we may have taken for granted. I was obliged to think about what matters most in American style, liberal arts, education when I attended a meeting in the Middle East. This experience made me believe that, if we are not careful, we could very well destroy what is greatest about our system of higher education.
In this era when anti-American sentiment is high in so many countries I was delighted to be invited to attend a meeting with educators from Muslim nations. This gathering, organized on behalf of the Hollings Center, was organized by the Council of American Overseas Research Centers. It was designed to bring 15 educators from Muslim majority countries together with five counterparts from the United States. Meeting in Istanbul, participants explored the reasons for the growing number of locally originated, American-style, liberal arts-oriented, independent undergraduate colleges and universities in these Muslim states.
Why would these types of institutions be developing at this time in history when relations between the U.S. and Muslim countries are at a particularly low point? The reason, as one participant said, is that “people from our countries who went away to college in the U.S. came back different, and changed in ways we value and which our societies need.” The basic question of the meeting was whether there is potential for the development of productive relationships between these independent universities in Muslim countries and institutions in the United States.
There was rich discussion along many dimensions, but the focus of my attention -- which I pursued in conversation during breaks and meal times -- was what makes “American-style” education different in the minds of these educators. While education in the tradition of the liberal arts can be accurately described as “distinctly American,” we Americans are notoriously inept in describing the essential characteristics of our educational approach.
It is not that we don’t try, but the hundreds of books and many thousands of articles and speeches on the topic -- often filled with educationese of little meaning to others -- vary widely in their accounts and terminology. I wondered whether these educators from places with very different educational traditions could be more profound in understanding and describing “American” higher education than their counterparts in the United States. Could their fresh views from the outside make them today’s educational de Tocquevilles -- as insightful about American-style higher education as was Alexis de Tocqueville in his writings about the development of American democracy based on his 1830s visit from his native France?
What became clear very quickly is that higher education in these countries is most often based on the content-expert model: the professor delivers knowledge in a disciplinary area and it is the student’s responsibility to memorize that information and report it back on some type of test. To be educated is to be a content specialist – a view also typical in traditional European approaches to higher education and which underlies most US government accountability measures. Yet they see this form of education as less valuable and useful than “American style” education.
What differentiates “American style higher education” from the modes more typically seen in their own nations? What are the most fundamental attributes of this preferred approach to learning? As I understood them, these de Tocquevilles from Muslim majority countries identified three essential and interrelated attributes of an American-style higher education – attributes that, though undoubtedly idealized, they believe create a better approach to college education. These attributes are, in fact, very obvious ones once stated; yet they are, like the air we breathe on a clear day, so obvious we often forget to pay attention to them:
- Our Purpose. Higher education’s purpose is to accomplish the long term goal of preparing a person to contribute and be successful over a lifetime, not just preparation for a job after college. This purpose has societal value, for it creates societally leading intellects who question the assumptions of society and lead their societies forward; it has intellectual value, as it creates people who know how to formulate questions and think about the implications of knowledge and who are open to new ways of thinking; and it has individual value, as it develops the whole person, socially, personally and maturationally.
- Centrality of Students. Students are the first priority; they are partners in the educational experience. Decisions about educational practices and priorities are based on what best serves the education of the students, not on the self-serving concerns or priorities of faculty, disciplines or professions. Further, respect for the student is role-modeled in every context; student thinking is valued even when it is flawed, with their errors used as opportunities for educational growth.
- Role of Faculty. Faculty, while respected, are not viewed as fully informed experts who transmit their knowledge, but as professionals who must themselves be constant learners. Their capabilities and effectiveness, whether in their disciplinary expertise or their pedagogical effectiveness, must be grown and developed through institution-supported programs, workshops and policies.
These “obvious” characteristics of American-style higher education are troubling because of where I see us heading right now. They are contrary to the current regulatory emphasis on bringing K-12-style, fact-oriented outcomes assessment to higher education; they are unrelated to the U.S. News-type assumptions underlying the prestige-based competition among institutions that consumes ever-greater amounts of their attention and resources; and they run counter to the growing emphasis on technical and professional education that seems to be consuming every undergraduate institution – including many liberal arts colleges.
Most fundamentally, these insights from Muslim educators don’t support several trends that are currently most fashionable in higher education in the United States, including the idea that a good higher education is one that results in a job; the arms race-like rivalries that require that each institution to spend more resources every year to build prettier or larger athletic and other facilities; the emphasis, even at teaching institutions, of having faculty measured according to research productivity, even though that attribute seems more related to institutional prestige than student learning; and the priority so many parents (and their children) place on attending the best-ranked school rather than the one that seems best suited for an individual student’s learning.
Are these educators from Muslim countries merely describing American higher education as it was rather than as it should appropriately be for today’s world? Their answer, I believe, would be “no” – what has made American-style education the best in the world is not the pursuit of prestige, the delivery of job-ready graduates, nor the provision of unrivaled facilities. It is a context for learning that is without parallel in most other nations’ higher education traditions, and involves long term good for humanity and for a nation, a respectful focus on the development of the student, and an honest view of the role and needs of the faculty.
This “American style” approach is in contrast to the educational traditions in many other countries that have involved the provision of a few institutions of prestige where only the “best” are allowed to enroll, and where graduation is intended to certify a level of knowledge about a topic that makes graduates immediately employable in a particular profession. To paraphrase what a business executive in one of these Muslim nations once said to me: “Give me a graduate of an American-style university who knows how to think and learn and make decisions, for those are the competencies necessary for long-term success; within a few months I can teach them the specific knowledge they need to start their job, though with the reality of constant change people will need to continue to learn throughout their career.”
There is a certain irony in all of this: At the same time that people in other nations are founding American-style liberal arts-based colleges, or are working to transform their own institutions in ways that make them more consistent with the key attributes of traditional American higher education, colleges and universities in the U.S. are changing in ways that take them ever-farther from our historic educational ideals. We are losing what they are gaining: educated people who are “changed in ways we value and which our societies need.”
Perhaps these higher education de Tocquevilles are telling us that it is time for a back-to-basics movement in American higher education – one fundamentally different from that which we have seen in K-12 education. For higher education to realize its distinctively American purpose -- to retain its renown -- it must not aspire to teach the 3 R’s, to be the best system for filling brains with facts, nor to have the highest rankings status. Instead, American higher education must seek in all ways to transform individuals into more fully developed, thinking, and engaged citizens.
This outcome results, not from the prestige ascribed to an institution nor from the luxuriousness of the campus, but from an educational context which develops people in essential ways. As Jefferson knew in crafting his approach to education in his newly founded nation, our society will advance only to the degree that there are educated, thinking, always developing and inquiring, engaged citizens to inform and shape developments.