The reimagination of higher education in 21st Century America

I finished another fall semester at The George Washington University where I teach in the legislative affairs department at the Graduate School of Political Management. At the end of each semester, I trust that my students walk away knowing how to think deeply and critically and how to engage with people with whom they have deep disagreements politically, religiously and otherwise.

The last thing I want my students to do is engage in escapism especially in politics and public policy by only engaging in the same kind of narrow, ideological homogeneity that reinforces a sense of self-righteousness. I have always taught politically liberal and conservative students, and I try to teach them that there is a human connection, but more than that, we can all learn something from those we fundamentally disagree with on a host of issues.

I believe that it is the parcel of a Socratic and prophetic way of being in the world.

Which leads to a larger question – what is the measure, impact and purpose of a college education today? Most might submerse that America measures the impactful value of an education by financial compensation. While many might believe this to be true, I reject the idea of an education achievement by financial gain alone. Going to college or university does not make one rich or wealthy. Nor should higher education itself be expected to transform into some vocational experience, as some seem to wish. The richness of its teachings in the habits of thinking, inquiry, communication and imaginative interpretations of cultural meanings and contexts should prepare those who matriculate through it to be effective contributors toward, even creative shapers of the ‘real’ world of knowledge applied to addressing human practical needs, relationships and aesthetic sensibilities of what comprises good societies embracing peoples living good lives. Simply, an education should lead people to live successful lives but also meaningful lives that lead to meaningful and enduring careers.

However, the work of such introspective reassessment has become far too politicized by those who principally want to tend to the indoctrinational functions of secondary education.  It, unfortunately, couples to a reflexive elitist belief that college need be the path for everyone, to the extent that little policy effort is devoted to discussion of deep and enduring means of reimagining to 21st century post-industrial life what used to be called ‘vocational education’ (now consider vaguely pejorative).

There is a lack of opportunity and proclaimed need that private industry feels are going unmet in the filling of their workforces. A belief that brought Trump to power, and essentially believes that higher education is in diametrical opposition to the “real” American way of life. Meanwhile, Congress is considering the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act in the House of Representatives; the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform (PROSPER) Act. This bill is being rushed and would make higher education more expensive and more difficult to access. For instance, the bill would cut essential federal support to institutions, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Additionally, this bill would eliminate subsidized education loans for low-income students who most need this college assistance. This means students enrolled in school will see interest grow on their loans, making it even more difficult to repay their loans.

Higher education must change to fit this new global economy. Moreover, since higher education is huge business in America more students are walking away with higher debt. Is a college education worth its price anymore? The real problem with higher education is with a failure of imagination of the creative possibilities for secondary education - and post-secondary educational options that are alternative to traditional college/university education. The failure of secondary education to be as meaningful as it could be, apart from its socialization effects, is the true great dilemma in preparing future generations for creative and productive life by varied measures. For my parents’ generation, education for them was to get a good education and get a good job. For this current generation, a good education will mostly likely lead them to high debt and employment in retail and/or at fast food restaurants.

There is lassitude on the part of educational policy folks, industry, trade unionists, political leaders and even – to the extent that they should participate in broader conversations regarding the shape of society to come – higher education leaders in addressing these issues. 

The whole mindset created by this stunted and misbegotten focus on higher education creates the consumerist atmosphere in which the foolish specific PROPSER Act gets semi-serious audience.  It is driven by people who wish to treat college/university education as principally a vocational entry point and, hence, a commodity where as with all commodities, the customer demand always decides what is right for the producer to invest in. 

The absence of higher educational stalwarts and visionaries in contemporary times – the William Rainey Harper, Mordecai W. Johnson, Benjamin Mays, Derek Bok types at the vanguard of leadership in public discussion has allowed dangerous drift and misperception about proper roles for higher education and suitable avenues by which it can both adapt itself to new prospects of service, yet be true to what it had always been intended to be.  Re-assertion of vigorous participation in the discussion by deep thinking leaders of higher education is needed to rebalance discussion from taking on a resource-dissipating wobble. The wobble in broader thinking is what adds extra peril to the future of HBCUs.

Professor Quardricos Bernard Driskell, a graduate of Morehouse College and Harvard Divinity School with 10 years of federal lobbying experience, an adjunct professor of religion and politics at The George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management, and pastor of the historic Beulah Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter @q_driskell4