Essay on the rhetoric missing from the Obama administration's comments on higher education
Reporting on the Senate's confirmation of Theodore Mitchell as the U.S. Department of Education's chief higher education official, Inside Higher Ed quoted a statement from Secretary of Education: “He will lead us through this important time in higher education as we continue to work toward the President’s goal to produce the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world by 2020.” While this brief remark is hardly a major policy statement, its tone and focus are typical of the way Secretary Duncan, President Obama, and many others in politics these days talk about higher education.
This typical rhetoric, in Duncan’s statement and beyond, makes a good point, but it doesn't say enough. To explain why, I will take a leaf from Thucydides. In History of the Peloponnesian War, he explained that his apparent verbatim accounts of speeches by other figures really articulated what he thought they should have said. With due respect for Secretary Duncan and President Obama, here is what the Secretary of Education should have said, on behalf of the President's aims, on the confirmation of a new Under Secretary of Education in charge of higher education affairs:
He will lead us through this important time in higher education as we continue to work toward the president’s goals for higher education in making America a more productive economy, a more just society, a more flourishing democracy, and a richer environment for what the Founders called, in the Declaration of Independence, "the pursuit of happiness," and in the Preamble to the Constitution, "the general welfare."
A part of that economic goal is to produce the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world by 2020. Another part is to ensure that higher education extends broadly the opportunity to develop the ingenuity and creativity that will drive American innovation in the years ahead.
That means working to ensure that higher education regains its function as an engine of socioeconomic advancement, both for the individual and for society as a whole. This means resisting the increasing stratification of curriculums and opportunities, making sure that the advantages of arts and sciences education are extended as far throughout higher education as possible. This is both prudent, to cultivate the nation's human capital, and also just, to mitigate disadvantages of less-privileged starting points.
Everyone knows that democracy depends on America's capacity to maintain a deliberative electorate, capable of making well-informed choices in a political system they understand and in which they actively participate. It is a responsibility of higher education to enhance this investment in America by helping maintain that electorate. It is a responsibility of government to promote that role.
Finally, when the Founders embraced such goals as " the pursuit of happiness," and securing "the general welfare" of the people, they acknowledged that the well-being of individuals and of society as a whole -- difficult as these concepts are to define -- are legitimate objects of government interest. Higher education has crucial responsibilities of exploration and discovery in this broad field of human well-being. It is here that the perennial American question concerning the scope and limits of government itself is to be explored, and given for inquiry to succeeding generations of Americans.
"So on the appointment of a new Under Secretary with responsibilities toward higher education, we celebrate the many contributions of higher education to American flourishing: its role in contributing to a vibrant economy, certainly; and also its role in sustaining and advancing the broad aims of justice and improvement to which the country has always been committed."
That would have been good to hear from Secretary Duncan, and would be good to hear in any of the administration's speeches about higher education. None of us who are committed to this broader vision of higher education can ever, I emphasize, lose sight of its role in propelling the economy forward. But we cannot permit the purposes of higher education in America to be narrowed solely into the goal of workforce production. More is at stake: access to opportunity, cultivation of ingenuity and innovation, and broad contributions to the future of the country. Phi Beta Kappa joins many voices in advocacy of that vision. We invite Theodore Mitchell, Secretary Duncan, and President Obama to join, as well.
John Churchill is secretary of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.