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There are truths we fail to voice. Let me offer an example.

A recent essay by Harvey J. Graff and Olga Knezevic provides a reality check about engineering, a perennial top-10 major. The authors point out that this major’s appeal often fails to match the hype. As their essay demonstrates:

  • Half of all prospective engineering majors exit the field, in some cases due to a lack of preparation or acumen in math, but in other instances due to the narrowness of the required coursework, the major’s lack of diversity and its high-pressure, highly competitive atmosphere.
  • Surging enrollments have exceeded the ability of engineering departments to serve many students well, offering too much book work, too many large weed-out courses and not enough small classes or hands-on experience.
  • The major’s requirements severely limit the number of electives and make it difficult to acquire a well-rounded education and the “soft” communication and critical thinking skills that can enrich a graduate’s life inside and outside the workplace.
  • Only a quarter of majors ever become practicing engineers, and many who do wind up in office jobs “focusing on design, planning, data analysis and project management.”

In 2019, David J. Deming, an economist at Harvard’s Kennedy School, published an essay in The New York Times with the revealing title “In the Salary Race, Engineers Sprint but English Majors Endure.” As he points out, the advantage for engineering majors “fades steadily after their first jobs, and by age 40 the earnings of people who majored in fields like social science or history have caught up.” It turns out that liberal arts majors are especially likely to end up in management and leadership occupations or in professions like law, where the midcareer salaries are highest.

Financial aid letters are replete with unspoken truths: that loans are not scholarships, that there are caps on how much students can borrow from the federal government and that most scholarships are discounts, not awards for academic achievement.

Truth comes in diverse forms. There’s objective truth: facts backed by evidence. There’s normative truth: beliefs and ideas that are accepted as true within a particular community. Then, there’s subjective truth: the irrefutable or indisputable ways that an individual sees or feels. Truths, in other words, can rest on empirical verification, acceptance or perspective.

To this list, I add a few others. There are hard truths: the harsh and painful truths that are difficult to accept. We are well aware of those truths in our personal lives: that some things aren’t meant to be. Or that sometimes there’s no right choice. Or not everything can be solved with an apology.

But there are also hard truths that we need to share with students. For example, you may need to tell students that just because they’ve invested a lot of time, energy and emotion into a particular subject, that doesn’t mean they should persist, hoping that the outcome will change. Or you may need to tell them that they need to put more effort into a particular task.

Then, there are half-truths that are often more invidious than brazen falsehoods. These are claims that omit essential information and create a false impression. Often, we deploy half-truths to obfuscate, deceive or evade blame.

Examples of half-truths flourish within the academy. When the University of Colorado proposed replacing its journalism school with a new program in information, communication and technology, its then dean said that the campus “been presented with the opportunity to really take some risks and go out there and declare that there is a new type of journalism education that integrates new kinds of thinking.” Perhaps.

There are also legal truths that are true within the bounds of a particular discourse or proceeding and symbolic or historical truths, which may be inaccurate in detail but reflect a deeper reality.

To cite one example: I have had students—I think of them as snipers—who ask questions not to elicit information, but to provoke a firestorm of fury. Often that question begins with the words “Isn’t it true?”

In one case, a student, in the back of my auditorium, said, “Isn’t it true that most enslaved Africans were enslaved by other Africans?” That echoes the argument made by the slave trade’s defenders, who asserted “that European traders simply purchased Africans who had already been enslaved … and that therefore the slave trade not only saved lives but enabled [enslaved Africans] … to share the blessings of Christian civilization.”

That claim, of course, distorts the larger historical truth—that in the absence of European and New World demand for slave labor, slaving in sub-Saharan Africa would have been much more limited and the terrible harms it caused—a sharply skewed sex ratio, depressed birth rates, depopulation in certain areas and declining agricultural productivity and displacement of local industries—would not have taken place.

As the great historian of slavery and my mentor David Brion Davis observed, we mustn’t pretend that facts speak for themselves. Often, facts are “enmeshed in competing mythologies that have served competing ideological needs.” It’s our job as scholars to expose vicious myths and not to allow “disputes over minor details to obscure the larger picture.”

In 1998, George Dennis O’Brien, a philosopher and president at the University of Rochester and Bucknell, published a now-forgotten book entitled All the Essential Half Truths About Higher Education. It’s a book that deserves to be remembered and reread, even if some of its arguments are outdated and others will inevitably strike most readers as wrongheaded or even repugnant.

What are the half-truths—the widely repeated axioms—that the book addresses? Here are a few.

‘The Faculty Is the University’

When Dwight Eisenhower met with Columbia University’s faculty as the institution’s new president, he expressed his pleasure at meeting the campus “employees.” The Nobel Prize–winning physicist I. I. Rabi responded, “Sir, the faculty are not the employees of Columbia University, the faculty is Columbia University.”

Isn’t it pretty to think so.

O’Brien voices two concerns with this cliché. The first is that most faculty members are more committed to their academic discipline than to their institution. The second is that it ignores the many functions that campuses perform.

The contemporary university is a hodgepodge of academic departments, research centers and a host of administrative units engaged in admissions, advising, facilities, informational technology, marketing, student life and more. It’s a managerial nightmare, with as many functions as a small city and at least as difficult to administer. Yes, faculty members are the university. So, too, are the advancement officers, compliance specialists, custodians, groundskeepers, instructional designers, educational technologists and countless other staff members and administrators.

‘Teaching Is the Primary Task of Higher Education’

Another hoary chestnut that is not a myth or a falsehood, but only a partial truth. I first learned this in graduate school. I and a number of other doctoral students asked Edmund S. Morgan, the dean of colonial American historians and perhaps my department’s most inspiring teacher, why he taught. We expected him to discuss his philosophy of teaching, but he responded, “It comes with the job.” We were crestfallen. As we’d later learn, research, as much or more than teaching, is the coin of the realm.

‘Distribution Requirements Produce Breadth of Knowledge’

This maxim, too, is only partly true. Universities presume that undergraduates will be “broadly educated by taking narrow courses,” which largely reflect the faculty’s specialized research interests.

I share O’Brien’s view that campuses should provide a more coherent lower-division curriculum that would better reflect the knowledge, skills and competencies that an educated person ought to acquire.

‘Tenure Is a Necessary Condition of Academic Freedom’

Yes. But tenure, O’Brien suggests, has become a sinecure for the privileged, a form of job security limited to an ever-shrinking portion of the faculty.

‘Low-Cost Public Education Benefits the Least Advantaged’

In fact, O’Brien argues, it’s the affluent and the suburban who benefit most from public education. They are the ones most likely to attend flagship and land-grant campuses where their tuition is highly subsidized. Economically disadvantaged students are much more likely to attend underresourced institutions or, currently, predatory for-profits.

‘The Problem With Higher Education Is the Administration’

If only the explanation for campus ills was so simple. The fact is that complex institutions require professional management, and campuses need a system of governance capable of addressing the budgetary, enrollment, personnel, technological and other challenges that lie ahead.

In O’Brien’s view, higher ed’s underlying problem lies in a series of tensions: between universities’ ever-expanding functions and the available resources, between the need to make tough choices and the many stakeholders with conflicting interests and values, and between an ethos that emphasizes specialized research and a residual commitment to student development across every vector.

If any single argument can be said to run through O’Brien’s book, it is that contemporary colleges and universities are haunted by the “ghostly presence of their former moral mission.” Even as the faculty professionalized and specialized, much of the public continued to believe that higher education’s purpose involves something more than career preparation, human capital formation, regional economic development and basic and applied research. It’s also about maturation, identity formation, character development, civic literacy and well-rounded growth, not just cognitively or academically, but culturally, ethically, physically and socially. It’s about instilling what O’Brien calls “practical wisdom.”

Yet, regrettably, most colleges and universities shun this responsibility.

O’Brien’s pleas—for faculty to take on more mentoring and service responsibilities and for campuses to reaffirm their commitment to students’ well-rounded development—have gone largely unheard. Ditto his call to create a more coherent lower-division undergraduate curriculum to replace the current cafeteria model. That appeal, too, has gone unanswered, for reasons that his book—overlooked and unremembered—explains.

My students, perhaps like yours, consider their gen ed courses a box-checking exercise largely redundant of what they learned in high school. Like O’Brien, they expect something more from college.

The biblical phrase “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” is inscribed on my university’s Main Building. That verse, from John 8:32, is not simply an affirmation of learning’s value. It’s an appeal for something beyond the kind of narrowly academic learning that one picks up in a classroom. After all, a college should be something more than a high-end trade school.

It’s certainly not the role of secular institutions to impart moral instruction or, for that matter, political teachings. But shouldn’t our colleges and universities do more to engage our students with the issues of our time—including equity and identity—and of all time—involving justice, moral and civic responsibility and the nature of the good life—and help them become more analytical and self-reflective thinkers? Isn’t that what a liberal education, an education appropriate for a free person, ought to be about?

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

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