Ultimate goals of higher education

I found my high school senior thesis from 1995 the other day and re-read it. Although 14 years old, I was amazed at the number of timeless ideas it contained. It wrestled with questions about what matters in higher education and provided answers that remain the core of my beliefs to this day.

My thesis examined how culture has transformed the purpose of the university from a “Sanctuary of Truth” to a “Culture Mart” that endows every man and woman with a good resume. I boldly stated that there are three ultimate goals of education: (1) acquire critical thinking skills, (2) know right from wrong, hence allowing each person to develop and follow a personal code of ethics, and (3) leave with the personal initiative to make one’s mark on the world, as a result of having an optimistic outlook on the future.

Wow. A lot to digest there, but it stands up as the core of what defines every kind of achievement, whether one is slated for the priesthood or the corner office. I’ll diagram it:

    Goal of School = expected outcome
    Learn to Think = solve problems
    Know the world = personal code of ethics
    Optimistic outlook = personal motivation
    (1+2+3) = inspire others and change the world

So why doesn’t schooling yield this formula? The answer applies to both American and African schools. It is not about resources, testing, curriculum, or any other quantifiable item. Instead, schooling fails when the teachers, parents, and community accept a pessimistic unavoidable future.
Leon Botstein of Bard College explained it best in 1993:

“[Students] are being educated in a context in which the adult community believe that the future will be worse than the present…. It is impossible to education in a climate of pessimism, impossible to cultivate motivation.”

A lack of optimism in classrooms and the larger community leads to a logical breakdown of the other two goals. Without optimism, motivations change. The “me” goals replace the “we” goals and eventually erode ethics. Without optimism, the critical thinking skills needed for solving long term problems become vestigial, like an inflamed appendix that anyone can just come along and hack off without complaint.

I differ with Botstein on one point: Pessimism still motivates, but these efforts shift focus to immediate gains. Look at the culture of AIDS-ravaged youth in South Africa, or the inner-city neighborhoods that define the trenches of the international drug trade. This kind of motivation robs successive generations of the kind of infectious optimism required for problem solving. It also redefines ethics on a community-wide scale around immediate goals.

Another profound truism is that people function best when something is expected of them. This is the narrative nugget behind every feel-good movie featuring inner city youths exceeding expectations of the jaded teaching establishment. Therein lies the key: expectations. We can accomplish so much more when we raise them for each other. Screw that hogwash about failures to meet high expectations lowering self-esteem. Science is driven by failure. We call it experimentation, but the lack of success continuously refines and articulates more precise goals. Athletics builds self-esteem through failure as well. No championship team is without setbacks. Coaches rely on small failures to motivate and inspire the team to strive for something greater.
Reading this again inspires me to “tackle” the big questions. (Maybe this time around I can “sack” them?) If these three things (thinking, worldly knowledge, and inspired motivation) are the formula, then what is the recipe that retains the flavor of good education while offering the flexibility to experiment?
This thesis has been passed around over the years. Several sets of comments blacken the margins. (Kids, this is what we did back then before the Internet existed!) In 1999 I wrote myself a footnote. It reads, “I need to write a follow-up paper on this: ‘Education ought to be concerned with supplying students with the material necessary to develop a well-rounded code of ethics.’”
What set of materials are those? I still don’t have the answer to that one, but at least I have the right question.

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