The End of Higher Education

Sometimes I don’t know what is real news and what only exists on Twitter, so you’ll forgive me if this is old news or not-news-at-all. I promise if you keep reading it will be relevant especially if you are a student or the parent of a student.

A couple of weeks ago, a confederation of academics, pundits, and entrepreneurs announced the formation of a new institution of higher education called the University of Austin. Pano Kanelos, former president of St. John’s College, made the announcement on Bari Weiss’ Substack newsletter. The announcement begins on a bleak note. “So much is broken in America. But higher education might be the most fractured institution of all.” He offers a brief catalog of the greatest ailments plaguing higher education in America. The first malady is a dogmatic woke orthodoxy creating an illiberal atmosphere of fear which is hostile to the pursuit of truth. The second is the sky rocketing cost of attendance which has resulted from administrative bloat and a proliferation of what they call “client driven student services.”* In the face of these crumbling edifices of once-great institutions, this group is launching its own replacement institution in Texas.

Predictably, the traditional gatekeepers of higher education were none too pleased with the announcement. It was generally met with derision and cynicism. The consensus, at least in the fake world of Twitter, seemed to be a loud “Harrumph. How dare they!” Gatekeepers tend to become indignant when people start deciding that charging their precious gate is a pointless waste of time. I don’t have strong feelings about the University of Austin to be honest. My suspicion is that the school will never become bigger than its initial headlines. Starting a new institution is exhausting. It takes a mountain of money and even more sacrifice and commitment. Pundits with large social media followings don’t start universities. They don’t have the time. Still, I wish them luck. I’m a big fan of institutions. I’m a fan of new institutions. I’m also a fan of protecting or reforming old institutions.

The End of Education

What really got my attention was this statement:

We believe that the purpose of education is not simply employment, but human flourishing, which includes meaningful employment. We are therefore also reconceiving the relationship between a liberal education and the demands of our dynamic and fluid professional world.

He continues:

This core purpose—the intrepid pursuit of truth—has been at the heart of education since Plato founded his Academy in 387 B.C. Reviving it would produce a resilient (or “antifragile”) cohort with exceptional capacity to think fearlessly, nimbly, and inventively. Such graduates will be the future leaders best prepared to address humanity’s challenges. 

Illiberal wokeness and the skyrocketing costs are only symptoms. There is something deeper that is broken in higher education. What is broken seems to be that higher education has lost its purpose, its end. So many in the industry of higher education are no longer sure why higher education exists. So many in the industry of higher education have lost their faith in the purpose of an education. When you lose or forget the purpose of anything, that thing is much more likely to be used in ways that will be harmful. That is what we see in higher education. Whether it is in new institutions or old ones, what we need is to rediscover and protect the true purpose of higher education.

In my role, I talk to a lot of high school students about going to college. The first thing I ask them is why they are going to college. We can get so caught up in where we are going to college that we neglect the more fundamental question. In our culture, the answer that many people are given is that you go to college because people go to college. For many students, college is just something that you are expected to do. The actual reasons for going to college are secondary if they are thought about at all, but this is a critically important question to ask.

When forced to reflect on the question, there are two answers that are usually given. Some people, maybe even a majority of people, say that they will go to college for primarily a vocational reason. In other words, the purpose of college is to receive training that leads to a credential which leads to a job. That’s not a bad reason for going to college. My wife is a nurse. I am a preacher/teacher. Both of us needed training and instruction before entering into our careers. There is another purpose for higher education however. It is a purpose that is deeper than the vocational purpose. Some go to college or university with a formational purpose. They don’t go to college principally for a particular job; they go to college in order to become a particular kind of person.** Arguably this was the original purpose of higher education which has now been lost in many institutions.

There’s No Money in the Meaning of Life

Anthony Kronman, in his book Education’s End, argues that while colleges and universities may still give lip service to this second, deeper purpose for education, most have given up on it as a worthwhile pursuit. College may have a formational purpose, but the institution has taken a hands off approach in actually guiding you towards that purpose. You are on your own.

Kronman identifies three phases of higher education in America which can help explain our current status.

  1. The first phase was what he calls the “age of piety” starting with the founding of Harvard in 1636 and going to the Civil War. In this era, every college was a religious institution because every college assumed that it’s primary task was giving instruction on the meaning of life. The question of life’s meaning is the most important question. It would have never occurred to Harvard that they would just let students figure it out on their own. Says Kronman, “College education rested on the premise that the ends of human living are not merely a fit subject of instruction but the one subject, before all others, that young men must study and learn. Instruction in the meaning of life proceeded on the basis of dogmatic assumptions that were simply taken for granted.”
  2. The second phase he calls the age of secular humanism which goes from the Civil War to the 1960s. In this phase, the question of life’s meaning was taken from institutions and placed into the humanities departments where it wasn’t so much taught as it was explored. The assumption became that institutions cannot teach the meaning of life. Instead, institutions facilitated students discovering meaning for life through exposure to literature, history, philosophy, art, etc.
  3. The third phase starts in the 1960s and continues to today. Kronman says, “In this third phase, the question of life’s meaning has ceased to be a recognized and valued subject of instruction even in the humanities. It has been expelled from our colleges and universities, under pressure from the research ideal and the demands of political correctness.” Basically, the meaning of life has become bad for business. There’s no money in the meaning of life. It isn’t treated as a serious academic pursuit. In fact, giving instruction on the meaning of life might even be regarded as downright oppressive in this environment. The STEM fields are considered legitimate, academic fields. The humanities departments are either closed due to lack of funding or they become playgrounds for all manner of subjectivist nonsense and grievance studies.

We now have multiple generations of people who have gone to college and have received almost no instruction on life’s meaning. Or, rather, they’ve been given instruction on life’s meaning, but that instruction amounts to a reminder that they are little more than a cog in an economic machine. You go to college to get a job to make money to buy stuff to leave behind to other people when you die. Along the way, life’s real meaning is an open, elusive question that you will have to figure out on your own. Keep in mind that those who have gone to college are typically those who shape cultural attitudes and values. They are the influencers. So their lack in instruction on life’s meaning trickles down and infects the entire culture. It is a little bleak when you think about it.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Parents, students you still have the ability to choose a meaning-full education. My advice to high school students is this: Don’t worry so much about what you want to be when you grow up. Worry about who you want to be when you grow up. Your purpose for higher education, your purpose for LIFE, has to be more than merely economic. You are more than your earning potential! I believe that true vocation, in the sense of life’s calling, can only be discerned when the question of life’s meaning has first been addressed. So chose an education and choose an institution that takes seriously your formation not just your vocation. Choose an institution that doesn’t run away from life’s most important questions but instead starts with those questions. Choose an education that doesn’t just set you adrift in the world to figure things out on your own but instead grounds you on unchanging truths.

If you want guidance on a good institution to consider, I might have some ideas.

*They are absolutely not wrong in this assertion. The explosion of administrative positions on college and university campuses is well documented. The most recent, shocking, example was recently revealed on the campus of Yale University.

**For what it’s worth, according to Pew Research, there are substantial numbers of people with each one of these goals for their higher education. Those who didn’t go to college tend to think of college more in terms of vocational training while those who went to college tend to think of college in terms of formation.

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