This morning, I read with interest “In Defense of Disinterested Knowledge” by Justin Sider. His essay chafes at the recent over emphasis on connecting the ideas and disciplines in higher education to political goals/social action. He argues that this propensity for tying disciplines to, well, outcomes beyond the university, provides a narrow lens that undermines the value of higher education as a whole. Ultimately, he argues that this lens has become a convenient tool for administrators to use in justifying program cuts or elimination. I stand accused.
I agree with Sider on several points. First, not every course needs to address the current sensibilities of our culture. Second, reducing all that we study to a direct (political) consequence is antithetical to the very idea of a university education. He summarizes this here:
Our students deserve to find themselves in whatever subjects, authors, texts, and ideas they may light on during our time together. That’s the great promise of higher education, especially public higher education, and there’s no predicting beforehand what concerns students will take as their own — just as we ourselves chose our own disciplines and fields. The attempt to make all scholarship accountable to the political exigencies of the moment removes that freedom.
I couldn’t agree more. Universities should provide room for the serendipitous experiences that provide the possibility of enlightenment and engagement in any area. Not everything we do should connect to a career or political action. To reduce education in this way would miss the point of the holistic that is an undergraduate degree. To be clear, I mean a liberal arts degree, with the idea of breadth built into its design. Indeed, when we narrow these opportunities, we inadvertently narrow the chances for our students to stumble upon an insight or a passion that was wholly unfamiliar to them at the start. Without these possibilities, the notion of a liberal arts degree is undermined.
Where I disagree with Sider is in two important areas. The first is in his assertion that administrators are taking advantage of this trend in linking degrees to “political exigencies” or even to careers and using it as a tool for course or program elimination. Not really. We are just as likely to be horrified by a program closure as faculty. We are, however, terribly concerned with enrollments because the health of the university depends on enrollments overall. Most of us do not have large endowments to tide us over when enrollments slide. We are directly impacted by missing our recruiting and retention goals, leaving us to make tough decisions about staffing in all areas of the university, including faculty. When a department has persistent low-enrolled classes, questions about the better investment to sustain the whole become paramount. Sometimes that can lead to program closures.
Recently, our campus closed four programs – two in STEM disciplines and two in humanities disciplines. All of them had long histories of low-enrollment in the major. In closing them, we lost no faculty; they are all still actively engaged in teaching in their disciplines. We simply made room for other areas of focus that seem to better speak to the students we are serving right now. Indeed, we have opened more new programs than we have closed.
But there is more to this story because I believe one of those degrees could have been saved had we come to an agreement about how to reposition it. I do not think that everything needs to be connected to a particular career, nor do I think everything should have a direct political or practical outcome. I do believe that we must be able to communicate the value of the curricula we offer and that communication needs to engage the students we are serving right now. Unfortunately, in this case, that did not happen.
This leads to my second disagreement with Sider. There is a difference between treating our students as consumers and trying to understand how to engage their sensibilities. Careers and politics are just two of the ways that we can appeal to our students right now. The career focus responds to important questions about return on investment. We cost a lot of money, even at public universities, and students and families want to know whether that investment will pay off. Career opportunities are one of the answers to that question. Politics and social change are also compelling for some (but by no means all) students. The desire to do some good in the world is a powerful argument for education. It is inspiring and empowering and may drive enrollment in some majors.
But what are the other arguments for what we do? We need to develop arguments for the “disinterested knowledge” that Sider celebrates. I know this seems counter to the wander through education that many of us enjoyed on our way to careers in higher education, but the students we are serving are not us. We are removed from their sensibilities in at least three ways:
1. They grew up after us and experienced different things – technologically, politically, environmentally, culturally. This means they are interested in different things.
2. Students coming to us right now have heard endless stories about debt and are less willing to just risk it and trust that the value will emerge.
3. Not all of them are curious about a breadth of ideas. This is not because they are a different generation, lots of our peers were not that curious either. It is because we were particularly interested- you know, kind of nerdy – hence we went into higher education.
These differences in our experiences and expectations seem to be driving our students to ask the question “why” – why should they value what we value? The question is reflected in their enrollment decisions. We need to give them some answers.
There are more cases to be made for the many disciplines and ideas explored at a university than simply linking everything to careers and political exigency. We might make a case for the value of understanding context, or the benefits of connecting ideas across the curriculum, or even for the joy of discovering new things. We can’t just say it though, we’ll have to show it, but I know we can. The why of what we do can be found in a million places, and honestly, I don’t think it is too much to ask that we provide that explanation. Doing so might just save us from our enrollment challenges. It might also lead our students on a journey through the very questions that might appear superfluous to them right now. If we give them a little help in understanding the why, they might just get interested in that “disinterested knowledge” after all.