1. First, it seems strange, but I think some college professors can begin to think of their job as some sort of divine right, like a king. My job, they might think, is to school the masses. My task is to correct the faulty thinking of the pleb. My God-like task is to bring truth to the fallen mind. I am superior to the student in every way and, like a prison jailer, am justified to show these criminals how wicked they are.
I hope you have not encountered any egregious examples of the above (especially at any Wesleyan college) but, rest assured, they are out there. Nevertheless, I think some professors--without even realizing it--can find themselves behaving as if students are privileged to study with them. Even in ministerial training, seminary professors can behave as if their primary charge is to correct the paltry thinking of future ministers.
I'm thinking of the seminary professor at an unnamed school who (illegally, I think) required students to give him 20 dollars if they slipped up and used a masculine pronoun for God. That student transferred out the next semester to another seminary that is near and dear my heart (whose name I won't mention ;-).
2. Now there are students who will pay to be abused like the above. It becomes a rite of passage, like going through basic training. And of course, then when they graduate they may feel as if they now have the right to berate everyone else for how stupid they are.
I would hope, of course, that a college professor does know more about the subject they are teaching than the student. Otherwise, they certainly shouldn't be the professor. And there are many students who are interested in truth for truth sake. There are students who go somewhere to study with a particular brilliant mind. There will hopefully always be research universities that push the boundaries of knowledge. And I hope most colleges and universities will have a clear place for this minority of students--the ones I love the most.
3. But the previous paragraph is a minority report. Much more fundamentally, education is a business. Colleges are selling something, and students are buying something. Suffice it to say, a company that sells the opportunity to be berated by someone is not a good business model. A company that primarily sells getting to watch a brilliant person write to someone else (that is, to publish rather than to teach) is not a good business model. There are colleges who are selling prestige and that is as valid as the market for it.
But in the vast majority of cases, colleges are meant to sell a concretely better future for the student. Sure, they also sell four years of campus fun, like a four year youth camp. This is the product most students are buying. But parents are buying a better future for their children. They are buying the potential for a better job.
Most are not buying a better person. That is to say, they are not paying money primarily to improve the virtue or brilliance of their children. They are buying a future job. In many cases today, especially in Christian circles, they hope they are actually buying indoctrination, quite the opposite of what many professors are selling.
4. So education is a business, and the consumer is buying knowledge and skills that will help them get a job that will help them have a better life. What does this say in terms of who colleges should hire? It implies that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, colleges and universities should be hiring people who are good teachers, not good researchers. And, unfortunately, it is not just that they need to be good teachers but the consumer needs to perceive them to be such--the students need to feel like they are getting a good product.
Again, there are always those who are interested in truth for truth's sake. And a professor needs to have something to give. The knowledge needs to be there. But the primary task has to be teaching.
5. Now it is true that there is often a divide between what is popular and what is true. This is a challenge. The parent and student want to move toward knowledge that will lead toward success. I hate to say it, but knowledge can actually make a person less successful. Consider the following train of thought:
- If the majority world thinks a certain way that is false.
- And a student becomes educated to think in a way that is true.
- The student may become less marketable in the majority world.
In a business, it is more important that the consumer think the product is desirable than for it to actually be desirable. Accordingly, it does not matter that we know the liberal arts are useful. Colleges have to package them in a way that they feel useful or pleasurable.
This calls for great care in curriculum planning. In marketing, colleges and universities must emphasize the things that the consumer thinks are most desirable. Yet it is legitimate for experts in various fields to present new options and new ways of thinking. If those ways of thinking ring true, then some students of their own free will will choose them. It is very important in such cases that professors help students know how to hold unpopular ideas in a positive and influential way.
6. Finally, the liberal arts need to be sold for their instrumental value. Many of us believe they are valid in their own right. Good literature doesn't have to do anything but give pleasure to the reader. But in the business context of education, we have to show things like the following (and arrange those courses accordingly):
- Philosophy makes students better thinkers, which makes them better employees.
- History helps students think in terms of causes and effects, which helps them deal with people and anticipate where certain decisions will lead.
- Writing is so important in so many jobs. Many employers would love an employee who could write.
- Literature enriches our bed-side manner. It makes us more than robots but people with feelings.
- Psychology and sociology can help us get along with others, a key skill for an employee.
- Math and science not only help us be better thinkers, but there are often certain kinds of skills in a job that require some sort of math skill.
- Theology and Bible courses help Christians know the kinds of values that a person should have in life. Not only are these of eternal value but what employer would not want employees that have integrity?
3) It will be very careful when the majority of experts think differently than the majority of the populace or its market. It must not force ideas on students but it should try to be salt and light, not confrontational. It should help students know how to hold unpopular positions in a hostile environment. 4) It should emphasize the usefulness and benefit of things like the liberal arts, not treat them as ends in themselves.
8. Of course I've had other thoughts before about the question of costs and competition. I have suggested that a BS could be a shorter version of a richer BA. I supported Keith Drury's sense that the competitive general education portions of college curricula may increasingly be online.
So there you have some more thoughts on the future of education in the US...