The Most Misunderstood Purpose of Higher Ed

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Ask undergraduate students about the reasons for college, and you’ll probably get a mix of answers heavy in “to get a good job” and “to learn.” Ask academics and policy makers, and the answers will include “critical thinking skills.” And if you ask what makes a college education unique, critical thinking may top the list.

The truly distinctive goal of higher education, however, rarely gets much discussion.

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Free Minds at Middlebury

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Shawna Shapiro, a professor at Middlebury College—where Charles Murray was shouted down during a talk last year—has supervised an undergraduate research project on Middlebury students’ attitudes toward free speech and ideological differences. What the researchers have found might seem surprising—unless you know many college students.

The project is called “Middlebury Students Engaging Across Difference”:

Students want to engage with ideological difference. As many as 89 percent of all survey participants, including 83 percent of left-leaning students (who made up 71 percent of the sample), said that it was “important” or “very important” to them to have conversations about controversial issues with people who have a viewpoint distinct from their own. …

Many students (58 percent) are having such conversations on at least a weekly basis. We asked those we surveyed to note all of the locations where such interactions tend to occur. They reported that they are more prevalent over a meal (78 percent) or in the residence halls (65 percent) than in classrooms (53 percent) or at public lectures (38 percent).

The majority (almost 80 percent) reported that such conversations, when they do occur, can be difficult to navigate. Many survey participants said the discussion too quickly devolves into a debate where, as one put it, “We’re talking at people instead of with them.” An interviewee said it’s easy to forget to “see the person as a person and not just a clump of ideas.” Students expressed a keen desire for interactions centered on empathy—not just “being right.” Many said they don’t feel heard, but they also admitted that they struggle to listen fully to others as well. …

A further complication is that fear of social marginalization is pervasive, particularly on a small, residential campus like ours. “The fear of ostracization is terrifying … of being the only one and a social outcast,” one interviewee explained. Some students claimed that this fear created a dynamic of “bandwagoning” in which “many people just seem to agree with one another for the sake of having the correct opinion.” One student framed the situation as “rhetorical gymnastics.”

Unsurprisingly, some students decide only to engage in these conversations with close friends, recognizing that probably limits the range of perspectives represented since “friend groups … often have similar ideas and opinions [as] mine.” Others feel differently: “I do not want to create a conflict with friends,” one said, adding, “It is also difficult to be in a relationship with someone when you disagree on most things political.” Students in this latter group expressed a preference for conversations in a more structured environment like the classroom.

I have no idea how representative the sample is, and of course this could capture only how Middlebury students think they think. But eighty survey respondents would be about three percent of the Middlebury student population. In any case, if this description is accurate, the typical respondent sounds … pretty much like everybody else who talks about politics under free conditions in a small community.

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Image: Postcard, “Lower Campus, Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vermont,” mid-20th century. Tichnor Brothers Postcard Collection, Boston Public Library.

Academia, Teaching, and Thinking

Alan Jacobs’s little book How to Think, published last year, draws an interesting contrast between “academic life” and “teaching”:

Academics have always been afflicted by unusually high levels of conformity to expectations: one of the chief ways you prove yourself worthy of an academic life is by getting very good grades, and you don’t get very good grades without saying the sort of things that your professors like to hear.

So again, no, academic life doesn’t do much to help one think, at least not in the sense in which I am commending thinking. It helps one to amass a body of knowledge and to learn and deploy certain approved rhetorical strategies, which requires a good memory, intellectual agility, and the like. But little about the academic life demands that you question your impulsive reactions ….

Being a teacher, though: that’s a different thing. I have been teaching undergraduates for more than thirty years now, and generally speaking undergraduate education is a wonderful laboratory for thinking. Most of my students know what they believe, and want to argue for it, but they also realize that they still have a lot to learn.[*]

This provocation deserves some pondering.

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