The University as Proving Ground

Recently, a lot of talk has been going around about the relative value of an education, thanks to the staggering amount of student debt accumulated by young Americans over the last few years. Some commentators describe it as a “bubble,” an overvalued asset whose price is going to suddenly drop, scorching all of the investors silly enough to hope that there will be a bigger fool down the line. Economists are issuing dire warnings about the relative earning potential of those with and those without college degrees, the employment potential, and the return on investment. Other, less dismal-scientist-type individuals are compiling lists of the highest-paying majors (that is, majors whose degree-holders are qualified for the highest-paying jobs).

Reform is in the air – a Chicago teachers’ strike, arguments over charter schools, school competition, and standardized testing. People are wondering: what’s the point of school if we can’t get jobs after completing it?

But this all misses a fundamental point: a university education was never meant to be job training for a specialized, modern economy. Though the education reformers of the 18th and 19th centuries did want to standardize education – mainly along the lines of an efficient, productive factory – the university system remained largely exempt from that kind of rote-line configuration. Instead, qualified professors continued to teach their specialized subjects to students desiring knowledge in certain areas: students take a certain number of required classes in order to acquire a minimum level of conversational and technical knowledge in a field, and they fill in the gaps by choosing classes and specialties that appeal to them.

Why is this? To understand why the current furor over the economic value of education is so misguided, it’s important to look at the triple (!) mandate of the university system. Society asks universities to do three things – 1) transmit cultural, critical, and scientific/inquisitive values to a new generation of students, 2) protect and foster art, literature, and scientific endeavors unlikely to turn an immediate profit, and 3) act as a credentialing system for certain jobs and pursuits.

The first goal of a university is to educate a student, not in a particular field, but as a citizen of a culture and the world. A graduate of university should have a basic grasp of art, literature, and history – maybe they don’t need to be able to strictly differentiate between prehistoric eras, but they should be aware that Impressionist art is different than Abstract art, and have some ability to explain why someone might choose to create one kind over the other. Historical realities and difficulties should be presented, so that a university student has some chance of graduating as a thoughtful voter and conscientious citizen. Science and mathematics must also be transmitted, even to students avowedly uninterested in these subjects, at least so every graduate can understand why several centuries of human striving have been dedicated to it.

The second important role of a university is to protect accomplished artists and scientists from the vicissitudes of the market. It is unlikely that the conceptual mathematics of theoretical physicists will immediately translate into profits, and so a university provides an important place where those pursuing significant works of art, study, and pure science can share their specific knowledge with interested pupils while continuing their work largely uninterrupted by economic needs. The salaries that professors draw are only partly the fruit of professing; the rest serves as a vouchsafe that allows thinkers and scholars to continue to work and publish in service to more than the bottom line.

Finally, universities have fairly recently been called into service to offer credentials to those interested in working in specific fields. Note that this is not the same as “educating” them, and occasionally conflicts with an educational mission. Although many industries are partly self-educating, most rely fairly heavily on unaffiliated universities for much of the legwork. Accountants, for example, are not educated by apprenticeships or businesses who need them, nor is the CPA exam open to anyone who wants to take it. People who wish to take the CPA must complete a certain number of credit-hours at an accredited university, uncoupling the idea of self-taught skill and merit from the credentials needed to prove that skill.

Of these three mandates, the third is arguably the least important, but it’s the one for which reformers are considering overhauling the entire system, throwing out centuries of priceless babies with a bathwater that has only recently become tepid and gray. Businesses with a need for certain types of employees should be considered as partners in the training of those employees, but in the modern economy, they are not. They instead poach their employees from other programs, especially those of universities.

The reason for education’s woes now seems twofold: first, a labor-competitive economy puts the pressure on employees to get hired, not on businesses to hire qualified employees. The practical upshot is that students who want a middle-class life need to make themselves attractive candidates and perfectly fit a business’s  pre-existing needs. The second reason is the idea that the credential in and of itself is sufficient for employment. There are many students who want “the degree,” not the education or even the skills. Obviously, this leads to students who don’t want to go to class, but only want to pass it. Dumbing down standards, teaching to tests, and enshrining the credentialing role of universities is not going to solve the problem, it’s going to exacerbate it. If employers really think that today’s grads are entitled, lazy, and self-centered, perhaps they should examine their own hiring practices and the pressure they put on the educational system to stamp “certified” on batches of students without actually transmitting information or benefitting society as a whole.



  1. I really like this post, especially the emphasis on the problematic aspects of using college degrees as an accreditation system. There seems to be a drastic shift away from the traditional university model to one modeled on the business world, and I don’t see that doing much good. Education isn’t just a “good” to be purchased.

  2. […] On the three purposes universities are expected to serve, and how one of those is starting to take over–to the detriment of the university system as a […]

  3. tony grafton · · Reply

    This is a very constructive and well-argued post. One query: are you sure the credentialing function is so new? Medieval and early modern European universities existed, in part, precisely to provide credentials for lawyers, doctors and theologians. And then as now the professors in the professional schools were better paid and more prominent in society than those who taught the liberal arts. Otherwise, heartfelt thanks for sorting out so clearly issues that are often confused.

    1. You make a great point, Tony. My concern with credentialing applies mainly to the post-industrial era mainly because prior to that, education was the exclusive privilege of the upper classes. Today, we’ve achieved a higher-educated population rate above 40%. As universal, extensive education becomes a real possibility, we need to think about the purpose of that education – if everyone gets an objectively higher rate of education relative to prior eras in history, then the degree by itself qualifies us for fewer jobs going forward. A degree no longer marks someone as “exceptional,” so if we still think education is valuable, we have to turn the debate to the intrinsic value of the knowledge itself, not its employment-garnering ability.

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