College at Risk

If there's one thing about which Americans agree these days, it's that we can't agree. Gridlock is the name of our game. We have no common ground.

There seems, however, to be at least one area of cordial consensus—and I don't mean bipartisan approval of the killing of Osama bin Laden or admiration for former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords's courage and grace.

I mean the public discourse on education. On that subject, Republicans and Democrats speak the same language—and so, with striking uniformity, do more and more college and university leaders. "Education is how to make sure we've got a work force that's productive and competitive," said President Bush in 2004. "Countries that outteach us today," as President Obama put it in 2009, "will outcompete us tomorrow."

What those statements have in common—and there is truth in both—is an instrumental view of education. Such a view has urgent pertinence today as the global "knowledge economy" demands marketable skills that even the best secondary schools no longer ade­quately provide. Recent books, such as Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, and We're Losing Our Minds: Rethinking American Higher Education, by Richard P. Keeling and Richard H.H. Hersh, marshal disturbing evidence that our colleges and universities are not providing those skills, either—at least not well or widely enough. But that view of teaching and learning as an economic driver is also a limited one, which puts at risk America's most distinctive contribution to the history and, we should hope, to the future of higher education. That distinctiveness is embodied, above all, in the American college, whose mission goes far beyond creating a competent work force through training brains for this or that functional task.

College, of course, is hardly an American invention. In ancient Greece and Rome, young men attended lectures that resembled our notion of a college course, and gatherings of students instructedby settled teachers took on some of the attributes we associate with modern colleges (libraries, fraternities, organized sports). By the Middle Ages, efforts were under way to regulate the right to teach by issuing licenses, presaging the modern idea of a faculty with exclusive authority to grant degrees. In that broad sense, college as a place where young people encounter ideas and ideals from teachers, and debate them with peers, has a history that exceeds two millennia.

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