Publisher's note: The John William Pope Center for Education Policy provides a treasure trove of information suggesting the better path forward in regards to North Carolina's number one issue — public education. Public education, at all levels, requires a significant amount of funding from our state government, and all one hundred North Carolina counties, so it is essential that leaders effecting education policy get it right, and know that concerned entities, like the John William Pope Center, will be minding their progress to do so. We welcome the John William Pope Center for Education Policy to our growing readership, and expect our readers to learn all they can to do their part in this wise endeavor to better educate our People.
The author of this post is Jay Schalin.
Editor's note: Higher education policy must begin with a vision and a sense of purpose, without which it becomes an incoherent jumble that contradicts itself and pulls in conflicting directions. One problem facing academia today is that it has long been largely subject to one vision, and now a very different, competing vision is emerging that seeks grand reforms.
Today's Pope Center commentary presents versions of both visions. The first, by Eric Johnson, a freelance writer who also works in financial aid for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, expresses his vision of higher education that has long been established-a liberal one, if you like. Click here to read Johnson's piece. The second version (presented below) is by the Pope Center's director of policy analysis, Jay Schalin; it is primarily a conservative vision of higher education. Both writers are speaking only for themselves and not their organizations-nor for any political institution.
Treat higher education as a serious matter worthy of great care
An academic institution cannot be all things to all people; it is a particular institution that fills particular needs and has particular limitations. Too expansive a mission can easily be turned toward wasteful means and political ends.
A reasonable starting point to describe a thoughtful vision of higher education is the three-part mission set forth in the American Association of University Professors' 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure.
- To promote inquiry and advance the store of man's knowledge.
- To provide general instruction to the students, and
- To provide experts for various branches of the public service.
In other words: research, education, and service.
It is worth noting that the AAUP placed research first. This conflicts with the reformist vision, which considers education to be the first and foremost purpose of higher education. It is possible to have an institution of higher education without research, but not the reverse; without education, a university is no longer a school.
Education should be serious and elevate thinking by directing minds toward important matters. Standards should be high and adhered to; a proper education is not a rite of passage but a rigorous training of the mind for serious pursuits undertaken by those with the drive and aptitude to benefit from such study.
The reformist vision favors education with some practical end in sight. But that does not mean we wish to turn an academic education into mere vocational training, a frequent critique about free-market education reformers.
While certainly reformers promote the study of practical concerns such as science, technology, and business, another practical end is the development of a student's powers of reason-which, at first glance, appears to correspond to the liberal demand that education promote "critical thinking." However, it differs greatly about how to achieve that goal. In the reform view, a program to train minds at the highest level must be carefully crafted to promote clear reason-it cannot be left to the chance preferences of students as now occurs in academia. An unfocused education does not produce philosopher-kings but idle navel gazers instead.
Particularly important is a well-crafted "general education" program, for that is where education can make those inclined to be useful thoughtful and those inclined to be thoughtful useful.
A sensible vision of education also seeks to explicitly transmit knowledge of our history, high culture, and political framework to a new generation of leaders-providing an intellectual version of Edmund Burke's concept of an implied "contract between the generations." This stands in stark opposition to the liberal vision that is in vogue today, which favors education that "transforms" society into something different that is skeptical of the past.
A conservative vision of higher education has never entirely given up on one main goal inherited from its Christian roots: to develop the whole person rather than to simply transmit facts and methods. The key, in today's modern secular society, is to raise a student's vision above the ordinary, the sensual, and the prosaic, through exposure to the great literature and ideas of the past. And most specifically, through exposure to the best discussions of moral reasoning.
Reformers have much different conceptions of the other two missions suggested by the AAUP, research and service. In the liberal conception, they seem to be conjoined; Alexander Meiklejohn, a leading founder of the AAUP, explicitly stated that research is performed as "agents of the people of the nation.... Our final responsibility, as scholars and teachers, is not to the truth. It is to the people who need the truth."
Such a purpose grounded on the immediate and shifting needs of people-as defined by an academic elite-can easily shift from pragmatism to expediency. The conservative vision explicitly bases research on an objective search for truth that transcends pragmatic needs of the day. Conservative thinker Russell Kirk considered open inquiry to be a "natural right," as it is so engrained in the soul of man that he will be compelled to seek truth even if facing death for doing so.
An appropriate vision tends to favor a limited idea of service-restricted to the letter of the AAUP's 1915 language above. Beyond offering expertise, faculty service leans toward politicization; when a public university assumes social responsibilities that more properly belong to other institutions, it circumvents the political process that is necessary to determine how to provide social services.
Higher education is indeed a blessing to American society. It can help us discover our better natures and improve our material existences. It can be a source of exploration and innovation as well as of permanence and tradition, and a proper place to conduct public debates. But higher education's leaders should be wary of making colleges unelected vehicles for social change. And resources are scarce and not all ideas are equally worthy.
I'll end with a famous statement by writer G.K. Chesterton's that pretty well sums up a sensible reform approach to higher education: "Do not be so open-minded that your brains fall out."
(Editor's note: Part I of this debate, featuring Eric Johnson's liberal vision of higher education, is available here.)