The late G.K. Chesterton observed,
Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.
I’m working my way through a dozen propositions about US higher education policy. In my last post, I argued that government is an inept arbiter and guarantor of quality and, in any case, a secular and pluralistic government will tend to define flourishing in technological and economic terms. That brings me to my second proposition.
Individual and societal flourishing encompasses far more than economic prosperity.
While data regarding technology output and patent registrations supports the assertion that China and India are on the way to displacing America’s undisputed technological and economic supremacy, the assertion of a cause and effect relationship between these phenomena and societal flourishing is a dubious one. Even if we grant the assertion that America is forfeiting its technological and economic supremacy to emerging nations, since when did we accept that human flourishing is exclusively or even primarily a matter of technological and economic prosperity?
Does anyone remember 1989?
Consider the Former Soviet Union. In the postwar 1950s, it was the Soviet Union that led the space race and the arms race. Did their oppressive, corrupt society prevail while ours faltered because of technological hegemony? Or did we recover technological hegemony because of our more just and free society? Regardless, are you truly ready to welcome economic prosperity at the expense of liberty and justice?
Employers value virtue
Not even employers are prepared to accept a commodified notion of higher education’s mission. They consistently report dissatisfaction with college graduates’ preparedness for the workplace—not only in terms of technical skills, but also and often primarily in terms of “soft skills” such as self-discipline, punctuality, empathy, emotional intelligence, and other character-related attributes. As one of my esteemed former colleagues often quipped, You can’t make up in training what you lack in selection. To render the idea in converse form: You can remediate technical deficits, but character deficits will undermine everything.
First things first
Christ-followers, of all people, should repudiate a commodified notion of human flourishing. As I wrote in my 2017 president’s report,
A major Sermon on the Mount theme is reward. The concept of reward is explicitly mentioned seven times and alluded to even more frequently. What kind of living pays off? Now or then? Here or there? Above all, says Jesus, true kingdom citizens live according to a value system with rewards that differ radically from those anticipated by both the pagans and the pseudo-pious (Mt. 6:19-33).
This embrace of a different value system is evidenced by abandonment of an anxiety-dominated, acquisitive existence. For the true kingdom citizen, anxiety about present supply and future security will be increasingly supplanted by serene awareness of earthly sufficiency and of heavenly storehouses for those who embrace kingdom priorities.
Here come the feds
Higher education commodification and its Siamese twin, consumerism, represents the impetus behind a seemingly inexorable push toward higher education federalization and regulation. The federal agenda is clear: Make higher education more “productive” in technological and economic terms. Measure higher education’s societal outputs (completion rates, time-to-degree) and individual outcomes (employment rates, personal income, and loan default).
There has to be a better way
Meanwhile, signs that America is failing to flourish are everywhere. Acclaimed New York Times columnist David Brooks’ jeremiad, The Road to Character, decries the obsession of today’s most gifted college students with “resume virtues” at the expense of “eulogy virtues.” I say we advocate for higher education policy that fosters—or at least permits some of us to compete by cultivating—truer and deeper flourishing.
Next time, I’ll address the role so-called “private” higher education plays in serving the public good.
Fresh gleanings to fuel your leadership awareness, reflection, and conversations …
Speaking of higher education policy, check out this new Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) position paper making a strong case for accreditor regulatory relief. I encourage you to become an advocate for these proposals via your circles of political and policy influence.
ABHE Senior Fellow, Scott Rodin, consistently offers honest and wise insight via his The Steward’s Journey blog. I found this one about the alternatives that confront us in responding to God’s silences to be particularly penetrating.