The Purpose of College: Career-making or Soul-making?

Textbook imageby Elisabeth Hedrick-Moser, Graduate Assistant, Reinert Center

Dan Berrett’s recent Chronicle article traces “the day the purpose of college changed” to the day that Ronald Reagan suggested that, in a time of economic downturn, “there are certain intellectual luxuries that perhaps we could do without.”  From this day in 1967, Barrett traces a change in the perception of college students about the purpose of college.  The article displays a chart that shows the percentage of students who viewed “being very well off financially” vs. “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” as “essential” or “very important” to their purpose in college from 1971-2013.  The figures:  in the 70’s well over 60% of students viewed developing a philosophy as essential to their purpose in college, and below 40% viewed financial security as essential.  By 2013, those figures literally flip:  Just above 40% view a meaningful philosophy as essential, while over 80% regard their essential college purpose as being well-off financially.

I’ve personally sensed this attitude over the years in teaching rhetoric and composition courses.  I sometimes feel resentment thick in the air, as students appear to feel forced to be in a class not connected to their career paths.  Of course, as I hope to convince them, writing and communication are integral to most any career path.  I view it as part of my job to demonstrate to them how the skills we develop may be applied and malleable in countless contexts.

In pedagogical lingo, I want them to see how the skills of rhetoric and composition transfer to other aspects of their lives.  Transfer refers to the capacity of a skill or knowledge to “travel to a new context” (Perkins and Salomon 22).  This “travel,” though, does not always happen naturally.  Rather, transfer most likely occurs when teachers create learning situations in which students complete learning tasks using the skills that we hope they will apply in the new context.

For example, if we want the lessons of a history class to transfer to help students “to make thoughtful interpretations of current events,” but we have only taught them “to remember and retrieve knowledge on cue,” we are not setting them up to make this jump (28).  To teach for transfer, Perkins and Salomon advise, teach students through the skills you want them to acquire.  Also, be transparent about your goals: “Deliberately provoke students to think about how they approach tasks in and outside of history, programming or math […and] confront students with analogous problems outside its boundary” (30).  By incorporating the “process of abstraction and connection making” into the everyday business of class, we can enable students to put their knowledge and skills to work when they go to work outside of college.

However, this way of thinking about transfer runs the risk of reinforcing the view that college is career training, as Jonathan Greene argues.  Still, can’t we prepare students for their careers, emphasizing how their skills and knowledge transfer, while at the same time opening up the aims of the classroom to the higher ends that bring many us to this profession in the first place?

Bobby Fong proposes that the purpose of college education, far above the quotidian purpose of economic security, is “soul-making,” “developing the internal landscape of students’ lives.”   He defines the ‘soul’ broadly, as “the individual identity a person forges in the course of living” (28).  Fong grounds his call for “soul-making” in Martha Nussbaum’s defense of liberal education in Cultivating Humanity.  Nussbaum (via Fong) articulates the aims of college as, first, developing students’ “capacity to critically examine themselves and the society that has formed them” (30).  Second, “exposing students to the unfamiliar […] to encourage [them] to appreciate the occasions when they are uncomfortable with the strangeness of the world” (32).  This encounter with “strangeness” leads into a third goal, the development of “empathy, the capacity to place themselves in the situation of others” (32).

If we desire higher education to work toward these ends, perhaps we need to make these goals transparent for our students.  Just as college skills require the intentional habits of abstraction and connection-making to transfer to career skills, so the cultivation of an “internal landscape” requires intentional incorporation into the ways we approach teaching our subject matter.

One semester, while teaching composition through having students research a social justice issue, I was open with them about my goals, and I asked them to think about their own.  I told them we had the option to spend all this time together—writing, talking, thinking—to just get through the course, acquire basic college skills, and move on.  Or, we could make the time matter.  We have the choice to spend the time writing, talking, and thinking about something that deeply concerns us.  I asked them, “Think about what concerns you.  You can use this time to ask difficult questions, to research to find answers, to find out what you can do in life.”  To my surprise, the students caught the vision.  We spent the semester inquiring together into questions they really cared about.  The tenor of the work, of the classroom, of their conversations with each other vibrated with their philosophical and emotional investment.

But should I have been surprised?  I wonder if, in a culture where marketability is king, they just need the nudge of someone else admitting they care about “the internal landscape of their lives.”  By stating the goal of cultivating that “internal landscape” and shaping our teaching methods to address habits of mind that make connections with broader experience, perhaps we can help that knowledge and skill base to transfer, not just to a career, but to a life well-lived.


Works Cited

Barrett, Dan.  “The Day the Purpose of College Changed.”  The Chronicle of Higher Education.  26 January 2015. Web. 27 Jan.      2015.

Fong, Bobby.  “Cultivating ‘Sparks of the Divinity.’” Liberal Education 100.3 (2014): 28-35. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 28 Jan. 2015.

Green, J.H.  ”Transfer of Learning and Its Ascendancy in Higher Education: A Cultural Critique.” Teaching in Higher Education 18.4 (2013): 365-376. Social Sciences Citation Index. Web. 28 Jan. 2015.

Nussbaum, Martha.  Cultivating Humanity:  A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education. Cambridge:  Harvard UP, 1997.

Perkins, D.N., and Gavriel Salomon. “Teaching For Transfer.” Educational Leadership 46.1 (1988): 22-32. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 28 Jan. 2015.

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