The true value of higher ed

This essay, by UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

President Obama’s proposal to develop a national scorecard for ranking universities is a valuable contribution towards improving accountability for higher education. The national discussion about higher education, however, has stressed not just affordability and access, but also the monetary benefits of a degree in light of the steep and steady rise in college tuition. The focus on monetary benefits is alarming because it runs the risk of eroding a longstanding and widely shared belief in the less tangible, but still significant public benefits that arise from broad access to a high-quality undergraduate education. Equally alarming is the fact that an increasing number of our students are retreating from subjects that cannot be directly tied to their vocational interests; the sort of learning that lies at the very core of the liberal arts and sciences. Combined, these two phenomena pose a direct threat to the public mission of our universities, as well as the fabric and future of our society.

It is sadly ironic that growing acceptance of the notion that an education is and should be a private good arises, in large part, from the dramatic disinvestment in public higher education. Over the last 10 years the university I lead, UC Berkeley, has seen state funding decline by more than 54 percent in constant dollars, while tuition has had to rise dramatically to compensate — though only in part — for this loss of state support. At Berkeley, we have made strenuous efforts to cut costs while also enhancing and extending financial aid. And yet, there is widespread sentiment that universities have to adjust to the new realities without renewed investment on the part of the state.

These trends have the potential to further undermine not just the future of research and innovation in our great public institutions, but also our public confidence in higher education itself. University leaders like me must continue to focus on controlling costs even as we work to generate new forms of support from private donors. At the same time, however, many of us resist the instrumentalization of higher education and the attendant decline of interest in the liberal arts and sciences not just because we want current generations to have the same general education we had but because otherwise we fear that our students will not have the intellectual tools (or predispositions) necessary to fully engage with the collective challenges we face, as a society, a nation and a world.

The belief that the liberal arts and sciences should be central to higher education rests on a distinctively American idea, one that was originally rooted in classical and religious education. This idea evolved into a more general commitment to have our undergraduate students engage fundamental human debates, dilemmas and discourses, both as the means to develop critical thinking and for the purpose of becoming active citizens of our world.

Today, however, there are many who proclaim the irrelevance, waste, or danger of this kind of education. Many doubt that it might still be important for our students to wrestle with Aristotle on the good life, Confucius on public ethics, Locke and Marx on the origins of property, Jefferson and de Tocqueville on the nature of democracy, Darwin on human evolution, Du Bois on the legacy of slavery, Gandhi on the humiliations of empire or de Beauvoir on the making of women.

The criticism of this kind of education, and the insistence in much of the national debate today about the priority of training in vocational skills, is also a distinctively American idea. Since the late 19th century, educators and critics have stressed the waste or elitism of general education and invoked the refrain of pragmatism and practicality. Yet, the genius of the history of American higher education has been in the carefully built consensus that we, as a society, and our students, as individuals, need institutions that could provide intellectual and moral education along with more practical and career-focused instruction. Not only are these two strains in the American approach to higher education compatible, they are also mutually supportive when combined.

In fact, the full potential of our universities and their public mission is made manifest precisely when we seek to meld disparate elements of the human experience, as well as the diverse aspects of our quest for knowledge and understanding. These goals can only be realized if we continue to nurture and support the fundamental interdependence of teaching and research, general and professional education, basic and applied research, the arts and the sciences, private interest and public good, our local obligations and our global ambitions, disciplinary specialization and multidisciplinary collaboration.

The American university succeeded precisely because it combined these features rather than sealing them off from each other. The kinds of intellectual and moral challenges that are fundamental to the liberal arts and sciences are also critical to the formulation and defense of the very idea of the university and its public mission. At its best, American higher education is an engine of social mobility and personal opportunity that both provides leadership in confronting our greatest challenges and produces leaders who will most successfully address them in the years ahead.

In this age of economic turmoil, government debt, and growing disenchantment with many of our public institutions, however, these kinds of statements are liable to be seen as naively utopian if not egregiously irresponsible. The success of this vision rests upon more than the quality of education. It will also rely on our capacity to ensure that all of our youth have proper access to education and genuine assurances about the actual affordability of college. Clark Kerr, the first chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley (and later president of the system), developed the California Master Plan for Higher Education in 1960 on this precise premise and was able to persuade the elected leaders of California to endorse — and fund — an organizational idea that integrated mass education with the highest levels of training and research, an institutional expression of American democratic ideals joined with the twin values of excellence and merit.

That was an age of widespread confidence in public institutions, and economic buoyancy. And yet as we engage once again the challenge of affordability and access in relation to the cost of higher education, it is important to remember that Kerr justified his educational vision on utopian ideas that seem even more important today. Speaking at his inauguration in 1952, Kerr noted,

“The University’s responsibility is not met in full by the education of successive student bodies, or by provision of myriad public services. These constitute the core of its activity, but do not exhaust its obligation. The university plays its highest role and meets its most profound obligation by its contributions to the moral and intellectual life.”

It is worrisome that some public leaders who themselves benefited from this kind of education have ceased to echo these utopian ideas in their own pronouncements about higher education.

As we confront the complex and daunting challenges of the 21st century — from climate change to the dysfunctional character of government, or from the accelerating role of technology in our lives to the growing need for robust global institutions — we must not squander our inheritance. We need to advocate for the continued significance of humanistic education in the liberal arts and sciences while re-envisioning the American research university as a public enterprise, on the foundation of time-tested values and a deep belief that our individual fates as citizens of towns, cities, states, nations and the globe are inextricably bound together.

As we debate the rising cost of higher education, we must be careful to maintain our perspective on its real and enduring value. As we provide for the development and cultivation of real world skills, all the while propelling the most important advances in science and technology, we must not lose sight of our more fundamental purposes, the contributions of the university to our collective and individual intellectual and moral well-being. Our society, and our future, will likely depend upon our capacity to do so.