Promote, then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened. – George Washington
What is the purpose of higher education? If you’ve ever had the distinct pleasure of taking one of UGA’s introductory economics courses, you may have been offered an answer. A college education, we are told, is an economic investment purchased by a consumer, the student, in hopes that the resulting increase in future earnings (or human capital, to use the appropriate jargon) will offset the initial costs of the investment. Whether or not this is followed by a patronizing illustration of the concept of scarcity (it usually is), the unsaid implication of this construction is that, absent the guarantee of high post-graduation income, no self respecting homo economicus would ever set foot in a classroom.
Popular though this explanation may be, especially in the hallowed halls of Terry College of Business, it has only recently (since the 1970s) become dominant. There exists another explanation for why we (should actually try to learn something other than the trendiest widget-producing technique or a throwaway General Ed requirement.
The British poet and intellectual Matthew Arnold famously stated that “to know ourselves and our world, we have, as a means to this end, to know the best that has been thought and said in the world.” the same can be said for the traditional concept of education long favored by tweed-wearing academia. Though economic gain is undeniably important (and, increasingly, tied to a bachelor’s degree), a high future income should never be the purpose of a good education, but merely a possible side-effect. Rather than a private commodity, education is viewed as a mix between a public and private good that benefits both the individual that receives it and society at large. Knowledge is to be pursued more or less for its own sake, with the idea that learning builds skills which will in turn provide students with the ability to function both as economically productive members of society and responsible citizens of a democratic nation. Says the Department of Philosophy’s Dr. Edward Halper: “The purpose of higher education is to open students’ minds to the possibility of lifelong learning, and of realizing what it means to be human.”
A quick glance at the numbers might suggest that the former approach is eclipsing the latter. The University of Georgia conferred 6,846 Bachelor’s degrees in 2011. Of these, 1,559, or 23%, were for “Business, Management, Marketing & Related Support Services.” By comparison, 196 were conferred for English Language & Literature, 158 for History, 55 for Philosophy/Religious Studies, and a paltry 41 for Mathematics and Statistics combined. Nationwide, business students make up around 1/5th of the undergraduate population. It is unlikely that most of these students have any burning desire to learn about the theory of the firm or basic accounting, but rather a burning desire to make the extra $13,000 in starting salary that the median business major will take home over his liberal arts brethren.
To sweeten the deal, it seems that the business student can secure these gains at the cost of much less effort than is generally expected of university students. According to the National Survey of Student Engagement, business majors spend the least time of students in any discipline on work outside the classroom. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in 2011 that business students show minimal gains in critical thinking and writing skills over their college careers and post exceptionally poor scores on the GMAT when compared with almost any major. Business majors also regularly compete for the top spot on lists of students most likely to cheat.
The problem is not that business majors are stupid. “I teach students in Franklin and Terry, and I don’t see any significant differences in test scores, grades, etc.” says Dr. Jonathan Williams, a professor of Economics at UGA. “I think your median student in both departments is about the same.” Rather, the University of Georgia, and others like it across the country, allows students to skate through school with only minimal exposure to subjects outside their chosen discipline. The University only requires 6 hours of Humanities/Fine Arts (English, Comparative Literature, Philosophy, Religion, Music, Classics, Foreign Languages) and 12 hours of Social Sciences (History, Sociology, Anthropology, Economics). Combine the AP and IB credit many freshman carry with the fact that classes like “History and Analysis of Rock Music” are deemed similarly worthy to “Introduction to Philosophy,” and it is easy to see how a student can graduate with an extensive knowledge of supply chain management and an exceedingly dim understanding of the world. Without necessary prodding by the University, students acting in the vein of J.S. Mill’s rationally self-interested man will be unlikely to do more than the bare minimum required to graduate, let alone actually read a book by Mill or anyone else.
All this is not to say that practical education has no place in American universities. High-tech industries (i.e. where the jobs are) often complain that the university system fails to produce enough qualified students to meet their needs. At a time when college costs and student debt are rising, students and parents are right to be concerned about Junior’s job prospects after graduation. It would be ridiculous to suggest that everyone should major or minor in the liberal arts or social sciences. However, it is equally ridiculous to expect that training students in narrow professional categories in the midst of a rapidly changing economy will serve them better than a fundamental understanding of how to read, write, learn, and think. Furthermore, as a democratic society, if we don’t equip our graduates with even the most basic knowledge of history, philosophy, and culture, then it stretches credulity to expect them to make informed decisions about self-government in the age of dark political money and ideological mass media.
“Everyone wants to take easy courses because people have the attitude of not wanting to work” says Dr. Halper. “But they don’t realize what’s on the table. College is just the next step in life, and students don’t realize the potential of who they can be and what they can become.” The American university system is still the best in the world, and a university education is, for many, a ticket to a high-paying job and a place in the middle class. But however intelligent we are as students, we are likely to follow the path of least resistance when it comes to earning our degrees. It is not the University’s business to dictate what we study, but it has a responsibility to ensure that we leave school not only employable, but educated.