A recent survey conducted by Robert E. Cipriano and Richard L. Riccardi, both affiliated with the University of Southern Connecticut, asked the faculty of the schools of arts and sciences, and health and human services, to reflect on what motivates students to attend college. Cipriano and Riccardi’s survey was designed to test the following hypothesis; do academic motivators differ between arts and sciences students and students in the school of heath and human services?
Twenty statements were presented to the faculty of the two schools and ranged from getting a detailed grasp of a specialized field to finding a spouse to increasing one’s earning potential. Cipriano and Riccardi found “both groups of faculty share common levels of agreement on the majority of questions, with differences of .3 or less not significant.” Faculty opinions diverged most on the first statement presented: “To get a detailed grasp of a specialized field.” Here, the difference was .77, with health and human services educators more in tune with current student educational goals.
It’s no secret that today’s college students desire to obtain a hire education, not a higher education. According to Money magazine, 85% of 141,000 incoming freshman polled at 200 universities said “getting a better job was a major reason for going to college, and six in 10 considered a college's ability to help its graduates get good jobs when deciding where to attend.” Since disciplines within the school of health and human services are employment oriented, Cipriano and Riccardi’s findings make sense.
While hire education may be the new reality, one is left to wonder if such a shift is a positive development for the intellectual health of the United States and the global community. Based on how other reasons ranked in Cipriano and Riccardi’s survey, there may be cause for concern. As our world becomes increasingly saturated with information—not all of it accurate or even true—the value that students place on higher education may be short sighted at best and potentially dangerous at worst. Consider how the following Cipriano/Riccardi statements ranked. (rankings based on a Likert scale of 1-5, with 1 indicating strong agreement and 5 indicating strong disagreement.)
All of the reasons listed above heavily emphasize critical thinking skills. While critical thinking can be woven into the fabric of any course, the motivations that fall toward the bottom are essential to being an informed and engaged global citizen. Let’s explore just a few aspects regarding each of the five statements as they relate to critical thinking and intellectual growth.
A developed understanding of the fine arts challenges embedded sociocultural, political, and aesthetic assumptions and leads individuals away from simple formulations of beauty and taste. The construction of life values is a lifelong process of questioning systems of philosophy religion, and moral agency—but the process begins with a basic knowledge of classical thought. A love for learning manifests itself in relentless curiosity and self-motivation to dive deeper into topics that may lie outside of a professional career while informing thought across a wide range of topics. Global citizenship requires the ability to see issues of universal importance from many angles—not just from a position of talking points. Finally, the speed of change in the 21st century is such that an individual needs to be flexible in both his or her professional and personal skill sets. Job-specific abilities in-demand today, will likely be superseded in short order, while broader critical thinking proficiencies can facilitate a more rapid grasp of new skills, should an individual need to switch careers.
Changing the reasons students attend college is a tall order, especially since their ROI-focused mindset surrounding education develops long before they arrive on campus. Are there ways to create employment-ready graduates and well-rounded global citizens at the same time? That’s far from a simple question to answer and it’s easy to understand why higher education finds itself in a pickle—institutions can’t forcibly instill a love for learning or an appreciation of the arts if students don’t see value in such things. Core classes in the arts and sciences are still required, but as the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. At the same time, these classes do expose students to ideas and concepts outside of their chosen fields of study—sometimes in ways powerful enough to create a thirst for more.
Higher education is responding to a cultural shift it did not create—blaming colleges for wanting to meet the needs of 21st century students is disingenuous. The economics on both sides of the higher education equation cannot be dismissed. The cost of obtaining a degree necessitates an expectation that the skills a student acquires should pay financial dividends. Universities need to attract and keep students in seats if their doors are to remain open. They do so by demonstrating the employability of their graduates. Viewing the issue from an economic vantage point, both parties are doing what is necessary to survive in a highly competitive world. Such an assessment can be widened to include employers; after all, it is the employersy who are asking for specialized skill sets. It is interesting to note that while employers want skilled workers, they can also feel the negative effects of hiring less well-rounded individuals.
The educators I interact with care a great deal about developing the whole student, not just creating worker bees (and this includes educators in very career-oriented fields.) The tide they fight flows from the socio-cultural waters in which students swim. With this in mind, the question becomes a larger societal issue about the fundamental value of education.
How do we move forward? How can educators at all levels impart practical skills that lead to employment while at the same time underscoring the value of broad-based knowledge and understanding? Does the solution reside in the classroom or somewhere outside of it? Food for thought, indeed.
If this is question which you’ve been grappling with I welcome you to share your take on the path forward in the comments below.
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