Cullison: A warped vision for higher education

Andrew M. Cullison

The American vision of higher education is in a state of decay.

Recently, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who also is considered a possible presidential candidate, appeared to try to redefine the mission of the University of Wisconsin System by deleting phrases that are classically part of higher education institutions’ mission statements. Removing phrases such as “improving the human condition” and “the search for truth,” and adding “meeting the state’s workforce needs.”

President Barack Obama visited Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis to discuss his plans for community colleges. A core part of Obama’s vision for assessing higher education institutions includes assessing colleges and the degrees they offer based on what percentage of graduates get jobs in the field of the degree they’ve studied.

This is a disturbing trend in our nation’s view about the purpose of higher education, and both parties are guilty of playing into it.

Yes, education is important for our workforce. We need well-educated people to be able to work in occupations that are much more complex and demanding, but if we start revamping our colleges with that aim alone, we are lost.

What we’re seeing is a drastic departure from the traditions and attitudes of the people that laid the foundation to build our system of higher education in the first place.

Democracy of the sort that the founding fathers envisioned was a radical experiment. Plato hated democracy: Why would you want to be subject to the rule of a mob of people who likely had no idea what was best for the nation?

Thomas Jefferson obsessed over this. In a letter to Richard Price, he said, “Wherever people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”

Jefferson didn’t pen four separate bills for American higher education because he was primarily concerned about job creation and staffing the state’s workforce. In each of those bills, he articulated fears about the tyranny that would arise if people were not well educated.

As a nation, we need to think very carefully about this new turn in higher education. Education is much more than preparation for a job; for generations, it has given Americans the tools to have thoughtful, engaged lives.

Andrew M. Cullison is director of The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University, Greencastle, Indiana.