Last month, Elizabeth Coleman -- president of Bennington College -- addressed the National Association of Independent Schools annual conference. I wasn't there to hear her; the text of her remarks was forwarded to me by someone who was. It's worth a read. Go ahead, look it over. I'll wait.
OK, now that you're back. Coleman's basic issue, it seems to me, is hardly new. Is the purpose of education simply to reproduce the status quo in an efficient manner, or is it to create thoughtful citizens? Coleman (like Socrates) clearly votes for the latter. But the environment in which higher education operates -- especially public institutions, and especially in the last decade or two -- quite obviously incents the former. Higher education has been cast as a private good, focused entirely (and entirely properly) on enhancing prospects for employment and affluence.
That it should be seen in such terms is further proof of insufficient reality testing on the part of US society. If my information is correct and BLS numbers are to be believed, between 1992 and 2008, the college-educated workforce went from 28.9 to 49.4 million. Of those numbers, the employment of college graduates in "non-college level jobs" went from 5.1 to 17.4 million. Employed college grads increased by 20.5 million. Under-employed college grads accounted for 12.3 million of the increase -- about 60%. That's not to say that 60% of college grads go on to take jobs they could have gotten straight out of high school, of course (a fallacious argument sometimes put forward by radical reactionaries) -- many who graduated during that period ended up replacing grads of the previous generation, who retired sometime during the 16-year span. But it is an indication that, viewed strictly as a private investment in future earnings, higher ed can be somewhat risky.
In the early portion of her remarks, Coleman has little nice to say about education-as-career-investment. Quoting Jefferson, Washington, and Madison she points out how important a liberally educated constituency is to a functioning democracy (or even republic). Setting the stage for a description of Bennington's efforts to provide a truly liberal education, she notes the negative impacts of the "departmentalized, discipline-based structures that dominate every aspect of higher education." Then she characterizes the solution:
The central strategy for Bennington turned out to be disarmingly simple and straightforward: to turn the most pressing problems of the world themselves into major definers and organizers of the curriculum. They would be accorded the same authority to generate and organize curriculum now held exclusively bu the traditional disciplines in the arts and sciences.
Coleman's diagram of the new curriculum shows six interconnected and overlapping problem sets, relating to health, equity, education, the uses of force, governance and the environment. As a basis for helping students learn how complex, how difficult, how interdependent, modern social problems have become, and how intractable they are to ideological or otherwise theoretically pure solutions, this curriculum (at least at the level of a sketch drawn on the back of an envelope) shows promise. Thus, for problems of social and long-term economic sustainability, it seems likely to be a good fit.
For problems of environmental and shorter-term economic sustainability, however, I'm troubled by Coleman's complete dismissal of career-oriented education. Reinforming the thought patterns of the citizenry is a noble quest, but it's not one likely to yield tangible results in the short term. Achieving anything approximating environmental sustainability requires not just knowledge, but large-scale action in the short term. Indeed, the immediate term. And maintaining economic sustainability through that period will require that our current industrial/commercial system -- despite any failings which might be evident -- will have to be not so much reinvented as re-aimed.
The global economy is only willing to be aimed at targets which promise profit for investors. The challenge is, thus, to make an environmentally sustainable economy at least as profitable as the current environmentally destructive one. Pricing signals (founded in commodity shortages or regulatory restrictions) can incent investors to re-aim, but only if a full range of alternative enabling technologies exists. Technologies must exist in sufficient quantity, and with sufficient robustness.
A major challenge facing higher education, then, is not just to discover or invent radically new understandings (basic research), or new technologies (fundamental applications), but to create new and innovative (and yes, much more efficient) ways of applying the technologies that are already well understood. Post-secondary education can advance pure science. It can also create a seemingly endless flow of certified technicians. But it also needs to advance the state of the practice. In the foreseeable future, the success of our efforts will hinge on applied science, and applied research, and applied scientists.
Coleman's on the right track when she calls for a curriculum based more in real-world problems than in traditional (and increasingly narrow) academic disciplines. But she sells her own vision short. Problem-based education is at least as productive in the world of practical application (including application within a career framework) as it is in a more conceptual, socially-oriented realm.
Not that it's either/or, of course. It's both/and. With an extra helping of "and".