Education in America, part I

Four years ago I could not have guessed how much I would appreciate Houston Baptist University, and I am certain this would not be the case had Dr. Robert Sloan, former president of Baylor, not taken the reigns the year before I entered. Indeed, he was part of the reason I decided on HBU. The greater reason was that I wanted a learning environment where issues of morality and faith were part of the discussion—where secular concerns could be examined from a Christian understanding of human life and the world we inhabit. Four years later, through my studies and my work on staff, I have come to a much deeper view of Academia, its purpose, and its current failures.

The modern tragedy in higher education has been the transformation of institutions from forums of open dialogue and independent intellectual development to factories of certified laborers; from teaching how to think to teaching what to think. Ask almost anyone why people go to college and their response would be something along the lines of, “to get started on a good career,” or “to get a higher paying job.” And to some extent that is true—you ought to be prepared to perform at a higher standard, and therefore be more appealing to companies, after you graduate. But with the focus entirely on a post-college position, students see little use for education that does not directly train them for their job of choice. Core curricula are treated as inconvenient distractions one must dispense with on the way to the finish line, where graduates can say, “I did my four years, now give me a diploma so I can put it on my resume.”

“The modern tragedy in higher education has been the transformation of institutions from forums of open dialogue and independent intellectual development to factories of certified laborers.”

But in many universities, it seems to make little difference, as core requirements have been gradually worn down and diluted to meet the growing push for greater numbers of people in college. They’ve been made “seeker friendly,” if you will, with more flexibility in choices and lower demands in class. You may disagree with me, but I am of the mind that not everyone belongs in college. Many people would be better served going directly into the job market, or perhaps entering a technical school that focuses on fast-track career-specific development. But they are pushed into the idea that they must get their four-year degree, even though they have no interest whatsoever in history, economics, language or philosophy. Some quit after a year or two. Some struggle through, changing majors a few times, barely making it to the end, often beyond the typical four years. And how many of those who graduate actually do anything related to what they believed they were “training” for?

Furthermore, K-12 education has utterly failed to equip many students with the intellectual tools necessary for critical and abstract thought. They are taught to memorize facts, to do homework, to cram for tests long enough to pass classes and get out. And having removed religious and moral considerations from public schools, class thinking has moved from introspection to regurgitation; creation to reaction.

In college, students should expect to learn useful facts that will be essential if their career follows their major. But four years of higher education should provide more than that, especially at today’s rising tuition rates. We are seeing more and more disappointed alumni, struggling to get a job and pay down college debt, while they ask themselves why they ever bothered with college in the first place. And that is only indicative of the public’s misconception of the purpose of higher education.

A university education should teach individuals to think openly and independently—skills that are valuable to any career path, but more importantly, skills that are essential to life itself. Interaction with other people is one of the few guarantees on this earth, and success for anyone depends greatly on whether or not they can navigate the complexities of human relationships and social institutions. Even at an internal level, there is a sense of relationship with oneself—and God for those of faith. Philosophy and theology, among other disciplines, teach us how to engage with our internal struggles in a healthy way.

One of the ways of teaching independent thinking is to constantly challenge assumptions and conclusions, and part of that is introducing students to the great thinkers of history who challenged conventional wisdom or pioneered new paths of understanding. Another positive outcome of this is that, as students construct a more well-rounded mental picture of human history and the ideas that have shaped and propelled our world, they join into that “great conversation” and have a more solid grasp of human nature, global events, and their place in that grand panorama.

“A diligent and honest search for the truth should leave nothing off the table, and this is a very important claim, with very deep implications for academia, on which even many faith-based institutions have difficulty delivering.”

When I chose to stay in Houston for graduate school, a key factor was my ability to continue working with the HBU staff during this crucial phase of its strategic development. Its leadership embraces the purposes of higher education as I have described, and also believes in the unity of faith and un-compromised academic scholarship. A diligent and honest search for the truth should leave nothing off the table, and this is a very important claim, with very deep implications for academia, on which even many faith-based institutions have difficulty delivering. What makes HBU particularly unique is its location in the third largest, and one of the most culturally and economically diverse metropolitan areas in the United States. The university has given me a great education, and significant changes over the last few years are promising for the future quality and reputation of my alma mater. I hope to stay involved, and perhaps after graduate school I will have the opportunity to teach others there as well.

And if I ever teach at the college level, I hope that the people who fill the seats of my classroom are not just warm bodies who have been pressured into being there, and whose tuition has been subsidized by the government. I would prefer that they have a real interest in learning, and that they want it bad enough to make significant personal investments. As long as we are looking at colleges as machines for producing a workforce, they will become increasingly less capable of doing so, while trillions of dollars in time and money will be wasted on spinning wheels.

2 Comments

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