Beacon or Mirror?

Like so many colleges and universities around the country, tiny Iowa Wesleyan, a college with an enrollment of 650 students in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, has recently announced that it will be eliminating sixteen academic majors, mostly in the liberal arts, in order to concentrate on majors in more practical disciplines — where the student demand and the jobs are. As the president of the college said in a recent statement:

The reorganization will allow Iowa Wesleyan College to focus its resources on academic programs that have high demand and strong student enrollment. They include business administration, nursing, elementary and early childhood education, human services, physical education, exercise science and wellness, psychology, pre-medical studies, biology, criminal justice, and music.

The irony is that recent studies reveal that college graduates who majored in one of the liberal arts (contrary to popular opinion) make more money in their lifetime than those students who major in one of the “useful arts.” But I will ignore that, since the problem here is that Iowa Wesleyan is simply following a national trend and it is one that has serious repercussions for us all.

Let me begin by stating that I am fully aware of the financial pressures on small colleges (especially) these days, with tuition increases and the pressure from low-cost online colleges promising the sky to those who demand an education. The students around the country are taking courses in “practical areas” where they are convinced the jobs are and they are eschewing the liberal arts and humanities where the jobs are not. I get that. It’s been going on for some time. But it is not only wrong-headed but also short-sighted — and a serious problem when one considers that the trend takes our young people away from an education that develops their minds and simply trains them for jobs. I have blogged about this before, but it remains a problem. Indeed, it is a growing problem. Ignoring for the momenbt the fact that liberal arts graduates make more money in their lifetime, since this really shouldn’t be the issue, democracy needs citizens who can use their minds and the trend away from education to job training does not promise much in the way of enlightened citizens in the future. It worried an astute thinker such as Antonio Gramsci many years ago in Italy which stressed job training for its students and eventually went the way of fascism, and it should be worrisome to us in a nation founded by men who knew how necessary a good education was to the survival of this democracy. Education breeds leaders who can think for themselves; training breeds followers who will do what they are told.

Years ago Robert Hutchins remarked that colleges should be beacons, not mirrors. They should stand fast and hold the line against the latest fashion and the various trends that come and go. An education, properly conceived, prepares a young person for an uncertain future and also enables them to train for whatever jobs that might be available when they graduate — and, moreover, enables them to change direction quickly as trends change and/or their preferences become altered as they mature. Job training prepares that person for a specific job and if they later find it stifling they must go back to school to re-train and redirect their energies elsewhere. Colleges, as Hutchins suggests, are supposed to provide the students what they need for their future endeavors, whatever those might be, and not simply give them what they want at present

My suggestion to my students when I advised them was to find something they loved to do and concentrate on that field while they are in college, even if the subject is viewed as “useless” by their parents or the marketing people. Of course, they might be wise to also take some practical courses in such things as business and computer science to enable them to find that first job. But they shouldn’t succumb to pressure and prostitute themselves to a narrow career path that might lead to a lower income in the long run and eventually a dead-end. I have had letters from students years after they graduated who thanked me for that advice and one letter from a young woman who did not take the advice and told me years later she wished she had. In any event, the breadth of preparation is essential to a young person’s future happiness and the colleges do them a great disservice to simply cater to their current whims and eliminate those courses that have little market appeal even though they are central to a good education. The only thing certain about the future is that it will change.

Thus, Iowa Wesleyan, like so many of its sister institutions around the country, is making a mistake of the first order. It is, obviously, driven by marketing strategies (though I note in passing that the college supports fourteen different sports programs, including football, with no plans to cut any of them). But even in a nation where the demand is for the practical and the useful it is the purpose of the college to show young people the direction they should take, not simply to blindly follow their lead. As Hutchins said, they should be beacons, not mirrors. And they can survive in a very tight market by making clear what their ideals are and convincing the young that those ideals will translate into the best possible preparation for their own uncertain futures.

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2 thoughts on “Beacon or Mirror?

  1. Hugh, you and I are lockstep on this, including your advice to your students. We need to teach kids how to think, know history and context, and to question things, including their own opinions formed over the years. On the latter point about following passions, one of my favorite pastimes when meeting people is to find out what they went to school for, what they graduated with, and what do they do now. It is usually an interesting chain of events. There was a time when little Davidson College, a top 25 liberal arts college, could claim the highest ranking of CEOs per graduates. They may not be true anymore, but I found that telling. Great post, BTG

  2. Tiny little St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland which has no majors and focuses on the “Great Books” has the highest percentage of graduates in the Fortune 500 of any college in the country! The only problem is finding that first job. After that, the bright ones with a broad foundation take off.

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