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Whither Higher Education?

Does college prepare students for jobs or for life? And does IT care?

I recently read--and highly recommend--Louis Menand's article in the June 6 New Yorker, entitled "Live and Learn: Why we have college."

What spurred the essay, in part, was the "Academically Adrift" report from two sociologists, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. This study has received a lot of publicity for its claim that colleges are failing to teach students "to think critically, reason analytically, solve problems, and communicate clearly," primarily because of grade inflation and a less-than-rigorous curriculum.

In his essay, Menand posits that there are two theories about the value of a college education. Theory 1 believes that college is a sorting mechanism that uses a grading system to identify "intelligent people early on so that it can funnel them into careers that maximize their talents." According to this theory, Menand says, "college is a four-year intelligence test" that not only sorts people by their innate abilities, but also their aptitudes for specific disciplines to ensure that the right people are in the right jobs.

Theory 2 believes that colleges should "expose future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing." The idea here is that in a society where people are incented only to learn things that will get them the best possible job, it is college's role to expose students to thoughts and ideas that will make them more informed and culturally aware citizens. Menand points out that US higher education has, since 1945, been committed to both theories of college. "The system is designed to be meritocratic (Theory 1) and democratic (Theory 2)."

To my mind, the challenge of meeting both goals has fueled the recent criticisms of higher education--not only Arum's and Roksa's critique that colleges are failing in their responsibility to prepare our citizens, but other charges that colleges are not adequately readying students for the 21st century global economy.

Technology has a central place in this debate, and it's not just a utilitarian one. Technological tools have an obvious role in 21st century job preparedness, and they are also, aside from books, the main instrument for teaching critical thinking and problem solving--as well as one of the key conduits of an informed citizenry.

Yet campus technology leaders can do more than simply promote appropriate tool use. With all the challenges that higher ed faces--competition from for-profit institutions, the astronomical rise of tuition, brutal budget cuts, an impenetrable job market, and the increasingly basic academic needs of entering students--the argument about the role of higher education in society goes beyond Menand's twin theories. It goes to the heart of the future of our culture and our country. And campus technology leaders need to be doing more than providing the wires that facilitate the conversation.

About the Author

Therese Mageau is the former editorial director of THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at therese@educationworksconsulting.com.

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