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The Purpose of Higher Education

This Legal Problem Solving post is by Grant Sims, Vanderbilt Law School Class of 2019.

I worry that institutions of higher learning are destroying themselves. To be clear, my concern is not that wealthy universities will disappear, but rather that many will, by prostrating themselves before the “market,” continue to shirk their responsibility to prepare students for life.

Perhaps this is too great a burden to place on universities. Preparation might best be left to some other institution, like the family or a valued community group; and entertainment might best be left to college administrators (like the person responsible for LSU’s now-infamous lazy river, part of the university’s new $85 million recreation center). Reasonable people can disagree. I, for one, think that our higher education institutions have an important role to play in preparing students for life, not just in ensuring they are entertained for four years.

Universities’ obligations extend beyond empowering individuals to lead meaningful lives to fortifying the foundations of our democracy. For the reasons given below, I fear consensus thought is trending away from this (admittedly romantic) image of the university as a custodian of knowledge. Whether or not you agree, this much is apparent: higher education, like the legal services industry, is ripe for a design-thinking shakeup.

Easy to say, difficult to do. Reforming any large industry is extremely difficult to do. Reorienting higher education–away from entertainment and toward–is no exception. It is a monumental task–so big, and involving so many competing interests, that understanding the challenge is itself at times an impediment to progress. But I think we can make it more digestible, first by getting back to basics. This way we will put together a platform on which design thinkers can build. In this post I won’t weigh in on most of the “hot” political issues relating to higher ed (things like student loan debt and admissions practices).

My focus, I hope, is more fundamental. Design thinkers in higher education should look for answers to basic questions: What is the purpose of higher education? What should college and graduate students be promised? And, importantly, who should higher education be for? I raise these questions not because we don’t have any answers to them, but rather because I think the most common ones are bad.

So, we need to scrutinize many of our assumptions, even the most basic ones. Allow me to kick us off: Design thinkers, who may be parents, students, or paid professionals, might start by reconsidering who should pursue advanced education and when. I am concerned that higher education’s focus on eighteen to twenty-two-year-olds works to the detriment of society (or country, economy, whatever–everything!) by limiting the riches of education to a relatively small cohort that may or may not be prepared to receive them, at least not at that early stage of life.

Universities everywhere have entrenched the idea that college is primarily for the young–is this for the best? I don’t mean to suggest that all 18-year-olds are unprepared for college. I’ve met plenty who were. And I certainly don’t mean to imply that no 18-year-old deserves it. On the contrary, I’ve known many, who, compared to myself at that age, deserved every opportunity that arose.

My basic point–which should be uncontroversial–is that universities across the country have artificially limited access to higher education, and arguably the effectiveness of it, by making themselves most attractive to young people looking to have a good time. That isn’t, in my opinion, what higher education should be about. It should be available to anyone who seeks to betterment themselves or their society and should be oriented toward that end.

I mentioned earlier that the universities can fortify the foundations of our democracy. They can also weaken them by failing to carry out their mission. Many of the American founders viewed learning, and higher learning in particular, as a necessary element of republican governance. Without it, how would officials act in the best interest of the nation? How could they, without judgment deeply informed by learning?

Today, this view–correct by my lights–has been largely abandoned. (Bizarrely, an education, especially one from an elite institution, has become in some circles an object of scorn.) Universities can set us down the proper path by modeling design thinking. By inculcating the principles of human-centered design, universities can raise a generation of empathetic, solution-oriented leaders dedicated above all to human progress.

We need universities to be at their best, continually producing the best, if we are to have a realistic chance of meeting this century’s greatest challenges. The current system has not failed us completely, and that isn’t what I want to suggest here. We are far, far better off today than we would be without it. But universities can, by searching for their lost touchstone, progress, set generations of students up for greater success than ever before. If they can do this, all of us will be better off.

Before this can begin, however, goals must be set. Design thinkers must be included in the discussion.