It’s not hard to find critics of higher education. Robert Samuelson, riding on recent findings that college students are not working hard, points out that there are lots of great jobs that do not require a bachelor’s degree. American colleges do not seem to teach real skills, other critics complain, leaving families to wonder whether excessive tuition bills are worth it.
These perceptions are serious, but they do not reflect an understanding of the history of American colleges. Our oldest colleges were not founded to address practical concerns or to apprentice tradesmen, but generally to train ministers. A 1643 brochure says that Harvard sought “to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity, dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches.” A royal charter established America’s second oldest college, William and Mary, as a “Place of Universal Study” covering philosophy, science and divinity.
Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin built the foundations both of the Republic and of the universities of Virginia and Pennsylvania. These colleges and universities were the product of the Enlightenment, therefore, not the Industrial Revolution. They were places of discovery, of skepticism, of thoughtfulness—not invention, problem-solving or job creation.
To be sure, higher education needed to evolve as societal needs changed. Land grant institutions of the mid-19th Century, like the University of Wisconsin, began with programs in agriculture, and then engineering, that yielded great discoveries in food science and endless technologies that powered the 20th Century. Community colleges addressed local needs for job training and continuing education. Today’s critics fail to see how little progress we would have made as a country without such institutions.
But I think recent assaults on colleges consciously overlook this history to focus on the 18th Century sensibilities that underpin our older and smaller colleges. I am referring to the liberal arts, the uniquely American approach to a comprehensive education. By teaching a wider range of subjects at a high level, American professors departed from their European heritage, where a deep focus on a single subject still governs higher education.
That departure was purposeful. Early academic leaders saw colleges as incubators for an enlightened polity, where civic leaders would be informed by today’s discoveries, inspired by yesterday’s history, and empowered by the confidence of a skilled mind. They knew that a fledgling republic moving into new territories needed leadership in every sector. There was no royalty or established church to fill those needs. We had to make a country, and a liberal education prepared generations of Americans to face the unknown currents of a country in its infancy.
And it worked. Liberal arts colleges sprouted throughout American history, as communities saw the advantages of a flexible, educated citizenry. But they have always evolved to address new needs. Lafayette College, for example, was founded in 1836 by the leaders of Easton, Pennsylvania, and soon thereafter started a teacher-training program. Today’s college officials certainly feel the heat from outside, primarily from worried parents, so they support traditional teaching while developing new programs in service learning, professional development, and alumni networking.
We have a right to ask, and to know, whether our liberal arts colleges are training students with rigor, helping them to become the skeptical and enlightened citizens that Jefferson and Franklin had in mind. So we should evaluate our colleges by standards grounded in history, finding value in the values they embody.