The Role of the University in Post-Industrial Societies

During its origin in the Middle Ages the University was an institution for elite education, but in post-industrial North American and European societies over the past century the University has become a vehicle for mass education and practical research. As universities have began to occupy this role the justification of their funding, place in society and existence has had to change. No longer can universities justify their place by saying that they pursue knowledge for knowledge sake, or for providing students with a liberal education that uniquely enables elites to be effective leaders. Instead, the university is typically justified on four bases within post-industrial societies.

The first and most dominant justification suggests that universities are required educate citizens so they are able to get good jobs and achieve economic success. University education is then an investment in the young, that will allow them be economically successful.

The second dominant justification of the university is that it produces research and knowledge that will be able to help solve social problems, and ensure our society is innovative and thus is able to succeed in a competitive, economically driven world.

Thirdly, universities are sometimes justified on the basis that they allow people to pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake and thus they don’t just help society solve problems, but also allow us to pursue the intrinsically worthy good of trying to better understand the universe.

Fourthly, universities are also often justified on the grounds that the education received, particularly in the liberal arts, will help students develop critical thinking skills, which will enhance democracy. On this view universities are seen to provide students with a well-rounded education that improves their character and capacities such that they are better citizens and individuals.

These justifications deeply differ and might even be supposed to conflict and thus the question I want to ask if it is plausible for the university in a post – industrial society to be able to fulfill all of the goals laid out by each of these four justifications. It seems to me that while it is conceivable that a university could do this in a particular kind of society, in post – industrial societies it seems that these justification are at cross-purposes, and thus the pursuit of one of the justifications will tend to negate some of the others. Hence the university, in its current form does not seem to be able to fulfill all of these goals effectively.

One quite glaring contemporary example of this conflict between the various justifications of universities is made evident by the failure of the bachelor’s degree to ensure economic success for those who pursue it. This problem arises because bachelor degrees, excluding nursing, education, engineering and possibly commerce, do not prepare students for any particular career or vocation. Thus while they may give graduates some skills it is not evident how these skills prepare them for economic success. For example, those who have a degree in the humanities typically learn how to construct an argument, read difficult texts, and write papers, but it is not obvious how these skills translate into any particular vocation, outside of the academy. But the reason why the bachelor’s degree in most forms fail to assure economic success for those who possess it is not because it is poorly designed, but because the degree is structured not simply as a prelude to a particular career, but as an introduction into a scholarly discipline, related disciplines, and to ensure people receive a well-rounded education that improves their capabilities. For example, the need for breadth requirements as part of a bachelor’s degree cannot be justified from the perspective education as a prerequisite for economic success. This is made evident because if I want to be a lawyer, why should I need to have an understanding of fields like the fine arts that have no clear relation to my field? But breadth requirements make sense if we think about the fact that different disciplines probably provide different critical thinking skills, and capabilities. Thus, to be a more well-rounded person, and citizen, you should have familiarity with a wider field of disciplines, rather than just with the discipline that you want to pursue a career in. Consequently, the very fact that the bachelor’s degree is structured, not as a simple preliminary to a vocation, but as a means to achieve a well-rounded education in some way harms its ability to justify itself as a means for citizens to ensure they have economic success. Pursuing an education that introduces you to a scholarly discipline and gives you a well-rounded appreciation of the world is a far less effective education for a career than a vocationally driven one. So, we have a case where one goal that a university is pursuing (well-rounded education) and another (education for a career) are in conflict.

We can also see this issue when we think of the research aspect of universities. The research that society is most interested in funding is often research with clear practical applications, rather than research that would best help us understand the world as a whole. So the university must try to reconcile two conflicting goals, as part of the mission of the university is towards serving as a haven for scholarship to help us better understand the world, and yet the state tends to see the university as a source of useful research that can solve its problems. While in some cases these goals may overlap, there is no reason for them to necessarily coincide.

The fact that universities are given the task of pursuing all of these unique, and conflicting goals puts them in an awkward place, and I cannot see universities being able to be successful at effectively pursuing all of these goals. Quite simply, when an institution tries to pursue multiple conflicting goals it tends to fail to deliver on any of them effectively. For example, the artist who tries to both be commercially successful and to produce something unique and interesting is not going to be able to deliver on either goal. He may try to produce something unique and interesting and end up creating something commercially successful, and vice versa. But as soon as he tries to simultaneously pursue both ends he will struggle as these goals do not always coincide and may conflict.

Does this mean the university should be abandoned? Certainly not, but it means that we need to stop being surprised that universities are unable to effectively pursue all of the goals they are tasked with. In addition we need to begin to think of how the university and mass education can be reformed so that the system of education, learning and research in our society can effectively provide vocational education, well-rounded scholarly education, produce practical research, and provide a haven for the pursuit of scholarship and science for its own sake. This may mean that the university needs to be supplemented with other institutions that can be tasked with some of the goals that the university is less adept to deal with. The existing vision of the university as a space for pure scholarship, practical research, education for economic success, and well-rounded education is well intentioned, but typically when one institution tries to pursue many disparate goals it will fail to deliver on any of them well.

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3 thoughts on “The Role of the University in Post-Industrial Societies

  1. These are all good questions.

    You know, Bernie makes the argument that the bachelor’s degree is equivalent to what once was a high school education, and therefore it should be free to all. I can somewhat see his point. He takes into account the reality of the situation, whereas I’ve always argued that college should be for those who want education for education’s sake, not for those who want to get a better job. He’s taking a more pragmatic approach, which I can appreciate.

    The problem is, it’s true that you can’t get far without a college degree, but getting one doesn’t guarantee anything either.

    My disillusionment with a great number of our universities comes from finding them dumbed down. I understand why, but I pursued education for education’s sake, not to advance a career. It seems to me we should have separate schools for separate purposes, and we shouldn’t require a college degree to join the middle class. But my thinking is pie-in-the-sky at this point.

    I don’t know what the answer is. I do think everyone should have a well-rounded education, but I realize that most students don’t care about that. They want the piece of paper so they can get on with their lives. I really do sympathize with that. Some people have a really hard time just getting through school, taking more than four years to complete a degree while holding down several minimum wage jobs, racking up huge debt, all just so they can MAYBE get a better job. It’s really sad.

    I think the pragmatic approach would be to have separate schools for separate purposes. That goes against what I hold as an ideal, that everyone should have a well-rounded education, and it also goes against democratic ideals, but what can we do? I’m not sure.

    • As always you make some great points.

      I definitely get where Sanders is coming from, but I also think that part of the problem is that the bachelor’s degree has become a de facto requirement for most professions. And we have to ask how this happened, and if there is something we can or should do to reverse this trend.

      I would argue that this is the result of trying to turn the university in a mass education institution directed towards enabling career progress, rather than well-rounded education, but that is certainly arguable. And while I do think the solution is to rethink the role of the university and other educational institutions there is little an individual country can do at this point, as the problem is global in scope. So, in the interim it might be wise for the US to at least further subsidize it recognizing that the reality of the situation is that people need this piece of paper, and so should not be riddled with debit to get it. University is expensive in Canada, but the debt load that most students have is far lower than the US, as tuition tends to run at about 6000-7000 dollars per year even at the top schools in the country. So, while the problems faced by Canada mirror the USA in this regard, they are nowhere near as bad.

      I also agree on the tendency of universities to dumb down their curricula. It is unfortunate but it is likely a result of the fact that degrees have become to be seen more like professional certifications, than evidence of having had a well-rounded education.

      I also am somewhat attracted to the idea of having separate institutions for education for education’s sake versus vocational education. However, there is a huge risk that existing inequalities will make it so that education for education’s sake is preserve of the elite, while vocational education is the option available to the less privileged. This shows that the question of structuring an educational system cannot be separated from the overall question of social justice. If all opportunities were genuinely available to all, because extreme poverty and disadvantage had been eliminated the multiple institution approach make sense, but as long as these inequalities remain unaddressed I worry about the unintended consequences of having strictly separate institutions for vocational and liberal education.

      But I think there is also a deeper problem, in that even if we see universities as the providers of well-rounded education, due to their degree (certification) granting function the goal of well-rounded education will always be in competition with the fact that they grant people a diploma or certification. And these degrees will always have a certain social currency which will tend to drive the direction of the university and the motives of many of the students. That is why, one idea I have and would like to try to work to see is to create centers for liberal education that are non-certification based, and that are not just meant for youths, but for anyone who is interested in education. The point of this is that a well-rounded education is a good that should be made available to all, but if you pursue this education to get a diploma or certification you will likely get less out of it than if you are just interested in learning. By creating institutions focused on liberal education, but that are not driven by certification we provide a space for citizens to learn that is more insulated from a destructive tendency to reduce liberal education to something that you need in order to do something else. This is a very loose idea and I am not sure how it would work, but I am pretty convinced that something like it is necessary to provide a socially recognized space in which education for education’s sake can be fully realized.

      • “And we have to ask how this happened, and if there is something we can or should do to reverse this trend.”

        I’ve heard that the dumbing down began with the draft, at least that’s the explanation here in the U.S. But I don’t know if that’s true. I think now we have this rhetoric that everyone should go to college, and it’s always bothered me until I heard Sander’s point. I think it’s unfortunate, but I see no way out of the situation. It seems that the paradigm has been set.

        What’s worse—universities have been dumbed down to allow people to get the piece of paper they need to get a job. Yet it doesn’t do a good job of that! So now I think young people are right to ask themselves if it’s worth it. In Canada, I’d say it’s definitely worth it. Here, I have friends who’ve racked up 90K in debt just for an undergrad degree in things like music…then they go off to get a job in a totally unrelated field. Personally, if I were younger and looking into college, and if I were one of those people who simply wanted the degree to get a good job, I might seriously think about starting up my own business instead. Or, I’d consider focusing on learning a skill that’s in demand.

        “However, there is a huge risk that existing inequalities will make it so that education for education’s sake is preserve of the elite, while vocational education is the option available to the less privileged.”

        This is somewhat the case, although I found out that if you’re really poor, you can get a lot of grants to go to a private college. That’s what I did and I ended up paying very little in comparison to others. However, if you’re in the middle class, you’re likely to be unable to pay for a private college. That’s where I see the inequality. Kids whose parents make a decent salary can’t afford private colleges, so they’re forced to go to a state school. Out-of-state tuition is extremely high, so usually they’re stuck with the nearby university. Or they could wait and get residency elsewhere, but not many kids are keen to do that. Another option is to wait until you’re no longer considered a dependent of your parents, but I haven’t met anyone who has taken that idea seriously. No one wants to wait that long.

        “… one idea I have and would like to try to work to see is to create centers for liberal education that are non-certification based, and that are not just meant for youths, but for anyone who is interested in education.”

        Community college is the answer here. I live in a place where a lot of folks come to retire, and the community college offers a lot of classes geared towards them. But even if you choose to take a regular “degree” class, the cost is minimal—$200/semester. I took a novel writing course that far surpassed the writing classes at the liberal arts college I attended, and it was filled with older folks. There are also music classes, art classes, language classes, you name it. It’s a great resource, but I don’t think many people realize that it’s there.

        On education as a whole, I think the solution would be to make universities cheaper (unlike Sanders, I don’t think we can make them free…that’s a nice idea, but a bit pie-in-the-sky). AND we need to make sure they actually do what they pretend to do, that is, give students job opportunities. Or at least make students aware of the risk they’re taking in studying things outside of certain fields. I don’t know how much students these days are aware of these matters. I think many of them think getting a degree in anything will ensure them job opportunities, but that’s definitely not the case. I knew I wasn’t exactly upping my job prospects by studying philosophy, but I admit I was surprised when I couldn’t even get a retail job after college. Admittedly, this was in Vermont where jobs were scarce. I ended up cleaning motel rooms for minimum wage. (Funny thing, another philosophy student joined me there.)

        Another funny thing—truck drivers tip well and keep things really really tidy. Watch out for the businessmen. Total slobs. 🙂

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