Title

What Is College For?

Rethinking higher education’s purpose and pedagogy.

August 24, 2020
 
 

Two recent books -- one a study of education in Elizabethan England, the other a celebration of a great books curriculum -- challenge us to reflect on the purpose of contemporary higher education and the pedagogies we use.

Neither book has much, if anything, to say about the learning sciences. References to neuroscience or today’s educational buzzwords -- constructivism, connectivism and active, project, inquiry or competency-based education -- are noticeably absent. Both suggest that our current supposedly empirically driven approach to curriculum design and pedagogy reflect an impoverished view of what higher education ought to be and how best to teach.

These books -- along with a new book by Derek Bok, which I will review in a subsequent posting -- seek to inspire us to break free from the paradigm trap that prevents us from imagining alternative and more inspiring and effective ways to think about higher education’s purpose and pedagogy.

Zena Hitz’s Lost in Thought offers a passionate and powerful defense of pure intellectualism and the intrinsic value of the intellectual life. This book argues that higher education’s importance lies not in its utility, applicability, skills conferred or practical outcomes, but rather in the cultivation of a rich inner life: a life devoted to disinterested contemplation and the cultivation of one’s aesthetic sensibilities. This is a life dedicated to thought, wonder and curiosity infused with a passion for reading, learning and reflection.

Scott Newstok’s How to Think Like Shakespeare argues that the much-maligned 16th-century approach to education, with its regimented Latin curriculum, emphasis on rote memorization, reliance on corporal punishment and restricted student body, has a great deal to teach us. He maintains that the Elizabethan classroom was in fact a pedagogical environment that encouraged curiosity, intellectual agility and rhetorical felicity.

With its emphasis on oral and written rhetoric, translation (first into English, then back into Latin), “êthopoeia” (delivering a speech in the voice of another person) and its focus on a very limited number of texts, the early modern classroom offered a way to balance imitation and creativity, tradition and innovation, and engagement with the past and the foreign and with the present and the native.

It would be easy to dismiss both books as latter-day successors to Alan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students. But neither is an elitist, Eurocentric or exclusionary diatribe.

Both suggest that our current approach to humanities teaching is profoundly undemocratic, since it deprives most students of the background knowledge, skills and habits of mind that a genuine humanistic education can provide. Worse yet, our current curricular requirements and course offerings cheat most students out of the broad education in the arts, history, literature and philosophy that can make graduates’ lives richer and more complete.

In arguing that a robust humanistic education should not be reserved for a privileged elite, Hitz and Newstok are not voices in the wilderness. Neither are they alone in criticizing gen ed curricula that rely upon disciplinary-based introductory courses as unduly narrow. Nor are they the only ones to decry an education that has largely eliminated pedagogies regards earlier methods -- such as the memorization of texts or oral recitation, let alone translation -- as antiquated and unduly stressful.

A growing number of leading humanists, including Andrew Delbanco, Louis Menand and William Deresiewicz, have also championed the idea that college should offer something more than a preprofessional credential. Purdue’s Cornerstone certificate and Harvard’s Humanities 10 (2,500 years of essential texts) and Humanities 11 (on the arts of listening, looking and reading) seek to give students who want genuine and sweeping introductions to the humanities that opportunity.

In his 2010 study of the failures of college curriculum reform, The Marketplace of Ideas, Harvard’s Menand posed three questions that should have (but didn’t) spur serious reflection and action: Why, he asked, can’t institutions agree on what an educated person ought to know? Why aren’t most faculty members able or willing to teach outside their discipline and specialty? And why can’t colleges offer the kind of robust education in the humanities that will produce well-rounded graduates with the verbal, writing, literacies and analytic skills that we ought to expect?

The answer to these questions comes down to professional training, socialization and reward structures. None show any signs of changing.

In our age of diminished expectations, perhaps the best we can do is to create opportunities for motivated students to pursue a meaningful, more holistic humanistic education. But the great strength of the Hitz and Newstok volumes is to shout "Stop!" and insist that we can do better.

These books decry the generational chauvinism that assumes that today’s educational system is superior to all that came before, that the kind of courses and pedagogies we offer are the best imaginable, and that our current curriculum -- which combines excessive requirements without a clearly defined sense of what a graduate should know or do -- is satisfactory. It isn’t.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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