Americans don’t like cheaters. When it comes to how we learn and what we’re able to do with our acquired knowledge, a game has been going on. And many will find themselves systematically locked out of opportunity.
This is not about students cheating on tests or principals downplaying ineffective teaching strategies. Nor is it about the latest argument concerning higher education — that college is too expensive and there’s no guarantee of gainful employment. It a national reckoning of how much we’re willing to tolerate regarding class, status and the suppression of economic mobility. This issue demands that we take responsibility for the way that our educational decisions play out in our lives and throughout our communities. Until we take ownership of these things, we will continue to play a fool’s game of winners and losers.
For the vast majority of Americans — myself included — a college education remains the key to an engaging, financially viable life. Nothing should be done to disrupt this trusted vehicle by zeroing in on the undergraduate degree solely as preparation for a first job whose “of-the-moment” skills and knowledge are likely be eclipsed in short order in a rapidly changing economy.
I am a first-generation college student. My father, while I was growing up ,was an assembly line worker making wooden boxes and a cook at a hospital. My mother did not work outside the home.
It was their conviction that I would receive an education that those who traditionally succeeded -- generation after generation -- in America already enjoyed.
And that was a liberal arts education. My parents didn’t really understand what a liberal arts education was, but they knew they wanted it for me. I was not about to be cheated out of an education that would not carry me through a lifetime of self-inquiry, engagement and changing job opportunities.
But today’s stormy economy, and with it, constant rhetoric from self-appointed critics dubbing the liberal arts “useless” as opposed to training for a first job, cause people to have doubts. The liberal arts — even as a complement to vocational education as in Germany where the technical economy is thriving — are glibly declared without value.
Is it not suspicious, however, that at the very time more and more aspiring students from challenging, non-middle-class backgrounds seek higher education, those who have already achieved, often on the basis of a liberal education, want to redefine the rules?
This is the game. It’s as close as America gets to hereditary power. And it is won in two relatively simple steps: redefine the very notion of student success on the basis of landing that first job; and keep those without privilege away from the liberal arts — a historical source of power and mobility in the middle-class culture that defines higher education. There is no doubt that those who are trying to tear down the traditional undergraduate degree would not permit their own children to be limited to a strictly vocational education.
So, while we are encouraged to fret over college costs, the marketability and uselessness of the philosophy major, or something else similarly distracting, we’re letting the great equalizer of the college degree and a trusted path to leadership get away from us.
Some institutions are not waiting for everyday Americans to catch on. At the University of Baltimore, for example, a state institution committed to open-access admissions at the undergraduate level, a rigorous examination of the challenges faced by and resources available to its students for success has been taking place for the past year. The goal is to provide students the academic and non-academic interventions that help them complete a career-oriented college-level course of study at a reasonably low cost and in a reasonable amount of time. These students didn’t grow up believing that they have all the time in the world to mature. They were not told every day that they are “great.” Many are first generation college students and come from nontraditional pathways to the university. There is a mix of ages. Urgency defines these students’ ambition. The university has no intercollegiate athletics and its residence facilities are minimal. The city often serves both its students’ residential and social life.
But in its effort to increase student success, the university is not forgoing its historic commitment to the applied liberal arts. It offers relatively modest number of majors that are preparatory to a range of careers — business, criminal justice, human sciences and management, digital communications, simulation and digital entertainment, psychology, jurisprudence, and integrated arts. All of these are taught within a liberal arts context. At its curricular core, the university has always been about a productive, at once imaginative, intersection of theory and practice defined by applied liberal arts in the service of employment.
For example, all publication design majors are required to complete Visual/Verbal Rhetoric and all digital communication majors are required to take Rhetoric of Digital Communications. Both courses are based in rhetorical theory from Aristotle and Burke to McLuhan, Toulmin and Barthes. Students analyze and apply aesthetic and rhetorical theory to visual products -- advertisements and other graphic-design materials, television shows and movies, public relations and marketing. The infusion of the liberal arts into the fundamentals of applied courses of study began with the introduction of programs often decades ago. The deliberate infusion of practical courses with the liberal arts is further strengthened by locating them within the Yale Gordon College of Arts and Sciences. Here is a university where open-access students are not about to be intellectually shortchanged even when facing the imperative to transition from study to work.
When our nation’s founding fathers made their original commitment to higher education, they envisioned a useful liberal arts education that would permit citizens to participate productively over a lifetime in the social, political and economic arenas of democracy. There was no dichotomy between the liberal arts and employment in the distinctively American college education.
Today, we risk this potential for a meritocracy. Ralph Waldo Emerson asserted centuries ago in his essay, "Self Reliance," that a distinction of the American people — a key to their inventiveness and advancement — is the ability to entertain two seemingly contradictory notions at once. Those who would drive a wedge between the liberal arts and jobs are destroying that distinction and limiting human potential. A culture of inherited privilege is still doggedly hanging on to supplant the individual’s talent and ambition. The walls are still up and being defended under the seductive guise of a narrow education for the first job. And a lot of folks are being cheated as college success is redefined. For when college success is redefined, so is life success.
William G. Durden is president emeritus of Dickinson College and a newly appointed research professor in the Johns Hopkins School of Education and operating partner at Sterling Partners. This essay is adapted from a talk he gave at the University of Baltimore.