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Work in Progress

Generous Thinking: The University and the Public Good

The university stands in a peculiar relationship to twenty-first-century American culture. On the one hand, that culture imagines institutions of higher education to be providers of vitally important credentials for those seeking an engaging career and a secure economic future. On the other, that same culture routinely depicts the university and its denizens as being out of touch with the real needs of their communities, producing and transmitting useless, abstract knowledge and standing in the way of real economic and technological progress. Perhaps no part of the university has suffered this criticism more than has the humanities. These fields, which focus on the study of language, literature, history, philosophy, religion, art, and other aspects of human culture, are repeatedly pointed to by public officials and other highly visible commentators as evidence of waste, of uselessness, of self-indulgence, of elitist frippery. And as a result of these twinned messages, students, educators, administrators, and funders are increasingly nudged into utilitarian approaches to higher education: students gravitate toward apparently “useful” pre-professional majors, encouraged in many cases by their understandably nervous parents who want only to ensure their students’ fully-credentialed future success; educators are required to spend more time describing and justifying their courses’ learning outcomes and less time actually helping students learn; administrators are pressed into adopting more and more quantitative metrics in order to demonstrate the success of their programs and the competitiveness of their institutions; funders are pushed to reserve support for projects and programs and institutions that provide demonstrable, and often directly economic, value. [Read more…]