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Let’s educate, not just validate. We need to revive the true purpose of a college education, which is not just a credential or a job, but to produce graduates who are life-ready.

Let’s reclaim the idea of educating the whole student.

A college education today bears scant resemblance to Cicero’s conception of a liberal education, an education befitting a free person. This was a centered around humanitas, moral and ethical development, rhetoric and eloquence, historical and philosophical understanding, and civic engagement. A college education today reflects a very different set of priorities. It’s pragmatic and narrowly utilitarian.

No wonder it has lost the ability to inspire.

Instead of preparing citizens for active and thoughtful participation in public life, it stresses discipline-specific knowledge and career preparation. In theory, this education is more relevant and practical; in practice, it tends to leave graduates ill-prepared for the challenges of adulthood.

Knowledge has become compartmentalized into distinct disciplines, each with its own methodologies and terminologies. Specialization and professionalization have led to the proliferation of highly focused academic departments and programs.

One result is a declining emphasis on the elements that Cicero considered essential to a liberal education.  

While nominally still a part of university curricula, moral and ethical development no longer occupies a central place in the curriculum.

The same is largely true about the arts, literature and history. The goal of cultivating broad cultural, historical and philosophical understanding has diminished as the curriculum leans toward specialization. 

Meanwhile, the art of rhetoric and eloquence, once the cornerstone of education, has largely been relegated to specific courses in rhetoric and composition, communication or literature, rather than being integrated as a fundamental skill across various disciplines. 

Although many universities maintain strong programs in civic engagement and public service, these are often optional or secondary to the main academic focus. The emphasis has shifted from preparing students as civic leaders to preparing them as professionals in specific fields.

This shift toward a more practical, relevant education is, of course, not without its benefits, as it responds to real-world demands and helps students secure employment in competitive economic landscapes. However, it also raises concerns about the broader purpose of higher education.

There is a risk that in focusing heavily on specialization and practical skills, a college education overlooks its essential role in developing critical thinkers, informed citizens and mature adults. Such an education also undervalues the humanities, resulting in graduates who lack much critical engagement with the arts, culture, ethics and history.

We all know why this is the case.

  • Faculty specialization: Faculty members, who are hired for their expertise in specific disciplines, feel unprepared or resistant to teach outside their areas of specialization. The pressure to publish in specialized fields discourages spending time on broader educational goals that do not directly contribute to their research output.
  • Market pressures: With rising tuition costs and student debt, students and parents increasingly prioritize programs that offer clear and direct paths to jobs, often in technical, business or healthcare fields.
  • Institutional barriers: Academic institutions, structured around specific disciplines, with separate departments and funding streams, find it difficult to implement and support interdisciplinary approaches necessary for a well-rounded education.
  • Student resistance: Students tend to resist requirements that aren’t directly related to their career goals. Many did not have positive experiences with or exposure to the arts and humanities in high school.
  • Pragmatism over idealism: There has been a cultural shift toward a more utilitarian view of college, viewing a diploma as a credential and a college education primarily as a means to achieve economic ends.

I’m convinced that Max Weber offers several insights that can help explain the resistance of colleges to providing a holistic education focused on moral and ethical development, rhetoric and eloquence, appreciation of the arts, and historical and philosophical understanding. Several of his key concepts—rationalization, secularization and the disenchantment of the world—are particularly relevant.

Weber’s concept of rationalization refers to the process by which traditional and value-oriented modes of thinking and behavior are gradually replaced by modern, scientifically based and efficiency-oriented ways of operating. In the context of higher education, this can be seen in several ways, beginning with specialization and bureaucratization.

Colleges and universities have become increasingly specialized and bureaucratized, focusing on efficiency and measurable outcomes. This has narrowed the scope of postsecondary education.

Weber’s idea that modern life is increasingly governed by economic rationality helps explain the shift toward education models that prioritize employment outcomes and practical skills over broader educational goals. The rising costs of education and the economic pressures on graduates further amplify this trend, as students seek guaranteed returns on their educational investments.

Also, in a more secular and pluralistic society, there tends to be strong resistance to anything that smacks of a value-based education. Values are often associated with religious or philosophical or political belief systems, and there is a concern about imposing specific values in a multicultural educational environment. Education becomes more about acquiring factual knowledge and less about understanding larger ethical or existential questions.

Weber’s notion of the disenchantment of the world describes the decline of mystical and religious worldviews as modern society increasingly embraces scientific and secular approaches. Applied to education, this has led to a devaluation of subjects that are traditionally associated with humanistic and ethical inquiry, such as philosophy, the arts and history.

In a disenchanted world, the utility of education—that is, its practical benefits such as earning potential and job security—tends to overshadow its role in personal and moral development.

In a recent essay in The Atlantic on the decline in churchgoing, Derek Thompson (a self-proclaimed agnostic) argues, in Weber-like terms, that the drift away from organized religion has imposed a heavy cost. In a society destabilized by hyper-individualism, that damage takes many forms: a loss of connection to the divine; the cessation of historic narratives of identity and purpose; and a declining sense of connection to a larger community. In addition, there has been a loss of collective rituals and of a shared sense of meaning and direction.

I’d argue that something somewhat similar has occurred at most colleges.  

In parallel to the decline in churchgoing and its effects on society, higher education increasingly reflects the shift towards hyper-individualism, with notable impacts on institutional culture and student experiences.

For one thing, there has been a loss of cohesive institutional identities. Historically, many colleges, especially those with religious affiliations, provided students with a strong sense of institutional identity and purpose that was often intertwined with broader ethical or religious principles. As institutions increasingly secularized and became more inclusive of diverse beliefs, those narratives became diluted. This shift can lead to a less cohesive sense of identity among students and faculty, akin to the loss of a historic narrative of identity described by Thompson in religious contexts.

The focus on individual achievement—on grades, internships and career preparation—over communal activities mirrors the broader societal trend of declining civic and community involvement evident in decreased church attendance. The emphasis on personal success can undermine the development of a community ethos among students, which traditionally contributed to a richer college experience.

Just as religious rituals provide structure, meaning and a sense of continuity to congregants, college traditions and rituals play similar roles on campuses. However, as universities grew and diversified, and as student bodies become more transient and less campus-centered, collective rituals have lost their centrality or been abandoned altogether, with the exception, on some campuses, like mine, of big-time sports. The decline in such rituals has diminished the shared experiences that help bond students to one another and to their alma mater.

There has also been an erosion of shared meaning and purpose, somewhat similar to Thompson’s observations about the loss of connection to the divine and its unifying purpose. Today’s universities face unrelenting pressure to justify their existence purely in terms of utilitarian outcomes—employment and earnings. The focus shifts from education as a transformative journey to education as a transaction, which can reduce opportunities to explore existential questions and larger societal roles.

The shift toward more individualistic pursuits in higher education has, in addition, been exacerbated by technology, which has led to more isolated student experiences.

What can be done to address these challenges?  Let me offer some suggestions.

1. Reimagine the humanities portion of the lower-division curriculum. Instead of discipline-based introductory survey courses, gen ed classes might address contemporary and existential issues across various disciplines to provide students with a more relevant, developmental, engaging and meaningful educational experience.

A lower-division literature course might focus on issues that students currently face, including the intricacies of interpersonal relationships, the complexities of identity, and the challenges of dealing with trauma, tragedy, and loss. In this way, students might explore how literature reflects and shapes understandings of human emotions and existential issues.

History departments might develop history courses that focus on the historical roots of current global and local issues, such as racial inequality, migration or climate change, that emphasize the experiences of different societies, cultures and peoples from a comparative perspective, and that offer a broader understanding of global history.

Lower-division courses in the arts might help students understand the meaning and purpose of the arts, teach them how to engage with the arts critically and analytically, and understand and debate the impact of particular works on individuals and societies.

Introductory level philosophy courses might be structured around current ethical dilemmas, such as technology ethics, environmental ethics and bioethics, making the study of philosophy immediately relevant to students’ lives.

2. Create a more integrated and synergistic lower-division experience. Create courses that connect STEM and business fields with the humanities and social sciences to counteract over-specialization and help produce graduates who are not only technically proficient but also philosophically, ethically and historically informed.

For example, an interdisciplinary course on technology might examine past examples of disruptive technologies, their roots and societal impact. It might also explore ethical dilemmas related to advances in technology, in such fields as artificial intelligence, biotechnology and cybersecurity. 

A multidisciplinary course on globalization might examine this topic from economic, historical and political perspectives and address such issues as migration, cultural exchange, global trade and international relations.

A humanistically informed course on medicine might introduce students to the experience of pain and illness, the history of medicine, the sociology of disease and the culture of medical practice.

Somewhat similarly, a humanistic introduction to engineering might focus on the field’s societal, ethical and cultural dimensions, including design principles, the social impact of engineering projects, the history of engineering disasters, regulatory challenges and ethical considerations. 

Likewise, a humanistic approach to business might examine the historical development of business practices, the socio-economic impact of business decisions, the ethical challenges faced by businesses and the role of leadership in shaping corporate cultures and ethical practices.

Correspondingly, a humanistic approach to the law might explore the development of the concepts of justice, rights and the ethical responsibilities of legal practitioners; representations of law and justice in literature and popular culture; and reflect on the societal implications of legal practices and reforms.

3. Create big issue classes that address pressing real-world issues from multidisciplinary perspectives. Many of today’s challenges, such as climate change, global health and social inequality, cannot be fully understood through the lens of a single discipline. Only an interdisciplinary approach can foster a more comprehensive or holistic understanding of such issues. By breaking down academic silos, these courses can provide students with the toolkit needed to tackle today’s most pressing challenges.

A multidisciplinary approach to climate change might explore the scientific basis of climate change, its historical development, economic and political implications, and the philosophical questions it raises about human interaction with the environment.

A course on global health challenges would examine public health threats through the lenses of biology, history, public policy and ethics and analyze how diseases spread, societal responses, the role of public policy in health crises and ethical dilemmas involved in resource allocation.

A class on inequality and social justice might explore the roots and ramifications of various forms of inequality (economic, racial, gender-based) from historical, economic, sociological and philosophical perspectives and consider potential solutions to promote social justice.

There are other steps our institutions can take:

  • Foster a sense of belonging: A campus should be a community of inquiry, a community of care and a solver community. Create rituals. Revitalize traditions. Encourage activities that bring the campus together.
  • Expand access to intramural and club sports, exercise, yoga and other physical activities: Athletics shouldn’t be about spectacle and entertainment. It should prioritize participation. Apart from its physical health benefits, regular involvement in sports and physical activities can encourage a lifetime of health-conscious behavior, reduce stress, enhance mental health, improve concentration, and improve resilience and emotional well-being, 
  • Encourage civic engagement: Integrate more opportunities for community service into the curriculum to strengthen students’ ties to broader community and social issues.

In addition to Cicero’s ideas about humanitas, let’s embrace, as far as possible, the German notion of Bildung, the idea that education is a journey of self-formation and personal maturation, as well as the Ignatian concept of cura personalis, of educating the whole person, mentally, physically, ethically and spiritually.

The core purpose of a liberal education is not a marketable credential or a job. It is to nurture mature, well-rounded, curious, self-reflective adults. That’s not beyond our capabilities. But it will require us to follow the example of the Protestant Reformers and cast off the excrescences that have warped and distorted our institutions and act to restore their lost mission.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author, most recently, of The Learning-Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational, and Equitable Experience.

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