What is the Primary Goal of Higher Education?

What is the core purpose of higher education? To educate, perhaps, but education to what end?

Tisch College Dean Alan D. Solomont answered that question today in a new op-ed reflecting on the White House Summit on Civic Learning and National Service which, as I mentioned, my office recently hosted.

As his op-ed describes:

While the [1947 Truman Commission on Higher Education for Democracy] stated that educating for democracy “should come first … among the principal goals for higher education,” today, society asks colleges and universities to prepare individuals for jobs in a cost-effective and accessible way. That is an important mission in a global economy, but there is a striking gap between 1947 rhetoric and today’s more narrow focus on education for individual economic success.

To modern sensibilities perhaps the idea of “education for democracy” sounds quaint, or perhaps simply idealistic. We’re living in a rough-and-tumble global economy. We face a skills gap. A wage gap. We are desperately trying to adjust to rapidly shifting industries and we are painfully aware that at any moment jobs might go overseas.

Education for democracy might be nice, but workforce development means survival.

There is a reasonableness to that argument, yet it feel oddly hollow and uncompelling.

Nearly half of all young people have no college experience, and, unless we want to consider making higher education free and accessible to all, than it is simply unconscionable to maintain a system that serves to improve economic prosperity for select participants.

Education for democracy – which everyone should have access to from Kindergarten right on up – has a different vision.

This approach imagines a society where everyone has the awareness to see and understand society’s problems, and everyone has the agency to do something about it. A society where people of differing views can hold civil conversations, pushing each other to be better and working to co-create solutions.

Education for democracy isn’t about improving the life of one student, or improving the lives of select students. It is about enriching all our lives, it is about actively, fundamentally, and collectively improving our communities.

The idea is neither quaint, nor idealistic. Indeed – education for democracy is about survival.

If we every hope to be the Just, Free, and Equal society we aspire to be, we must educate our young people not only to espouse these views, but to demonstrate them.

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