Forgetting what the point was

From “The Curriculum and College Life: Confronting Unfulfilled Promises” by Leon Botstein in Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk (2005):

The underlying and optimistic belief behind the effort to make access to higher education as universal as possible is a traditional conviction that there must be a causal link between education and human progress. The notion of progress can be understood in various ways, in terms of civility, understanding, tolerance, ethics, aesthetic judgment, or citizen participation. One of the sharp ironies of contemporary life is that although more Americans are completing more years of formal schooling than ever before, including time in college, we find ourselves confronted, it seems, despite more exposure to learning, with an absence of progress in these arenas. One needs only to cite the declining quality of public political debate, lapses in integrity and standards in professional and business practices, public entertainment (e.g., reality television), precollege school achievement, and what the eighteenth century called civic virtue.

Curricular changes notwithstanding, what has remained frighteningly consistent despite nearly a half century of increased access to college is that the encounter with the primary purpose of being in college – learning – seems not to have left many traces on our life after college. The presumed civic and cultural benefits of going to college continue to elude us. The experience of classroom learning (writing papers, tackling problem sets, completing laboratory assignments, taking examinations) has not influenced college graduates, as adults, to live their lives differently or, one might suggest, better. Classroom learning seems to have had little effect on the manner in which students conduct their daily lives or graduates pursue vocations and careers, if one believes the critics of contemporary  practice of medicine and law. There is little empirical justification for the conceit of influence embedded in the rhetoric of liberal learning and general education.

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