A College isn't Just Another Commodity

Sunday, April 30, 2000 - 12:00

This opinion piece ran in the Learning Section of the Boston Sunday Globe on April 30, 2000.

"The chief business of the American people is business," observed President Calvin Coolidge in 1925. This view has renewed respectability these days, as the benefits of a booming economy are clearly in evidence. Yet I worry about a commercial mentality permeating everything we do, including education.

The all-pervasive ratings games, introduced by U.S. News & World Report and followed by a growing number of other magazines, have had an especially deleterious effect on the process of choosing a college. To be sure, this choice is an important decision and a major investment. But rather than encouraging students and their parents to identify colleges and universities which are best suited to their individual needs, these bogus attempts to rank institutions lump them all together and treat them like just another commodity, such as a washing machine.

And, what is especially odd is that US News and its imitators evaluate these educational machines by the durability of the goods put in rather than the effectiveness of the wash that comes out. That is, input measures dominate---the SAT scores and class rank of incoming classes, the amount of money spent on education or raised each year, rather than output measures---the quality of education that students receive.

Seeing ourselves locked in fierce competition with one another in these rating games, colleges and universities are preoccupied ever more crassly with "market positioning," with the "key messages" we are sending out into the world, with how we are attracting "customers" and capital and garnering prestige. In such a world, educational aims can be less compelling than marketing ones in shaping the institutional agenda.

Not only are we ever more aggressively selling ourselves, so increasingly are our students. Positioning of the self is the name of the game from an early age for today's student. More and more students come to higher education with a narrowed focus on career success which, ironically, may ultimately shortchange their chances for success in life and in the workplace.

Students know that the SAT score, for example, is a "credential" that may well delimit and predetermine their subsequent fortunes. Lost is that this test only measures a narrow kind of intelligence and potentially lost are students who do not fare well on this culturally related test, including many students of color. Gaming the SAT is part of the game itself, and if parents can spend money on prep courses, students can probably improve their scores. Many students now use paid consultants to calculate how best to market themselves to admission offices. "Will this community service look good on my admissions application?" can seem to be a more important question than, "Will this community service help others and expand my horizons?"

Once they begin college, if not well before, students frequently start to worry about building a resume: how will this internship open doors for me? How can I "network" to my advantage? And, of course, we encourage that thinking with our well-equipped career development centers and alumni networks. Aware that they are about to enter a world of what Arthur Levine of Columbia College has called "piranha economics," they seek to put together their "portfolios" and to package themselves with as much savvy as possible. While much of this is good and helpful, students might well feel that they do not have the time to find an authentic self so caught up are they in manufacturing a marketable version of it. As a New York Times article noted recently, "No longer is education a route to spiritual enlightenment. For many students, it is a place to start a business or accelerate their movement up the career ladder."

Despite the power and perhaps even the inevitability of these marketing trends, I believe that we in the academy can and should exert some counterforce. We must take care to preserve our own culture and values and to keep focused on our educational purposes. In my view, some vestiges of the ivory tower should continue to coexist with the fast-track, high-tech world. In fact, maintaining some distance from the fray is the best way the academy can serve the commercial, political, and social interests of society. I'm not arguing for a total retreat from the world; indeed, at my own college we pride ourselves on the connections we make between education and "purposeful engagement with the world."

Nonetheless, Wordsworth was right: "The world is too much with us, getting and spending we lay waste our powers." Our society still needs havens where the joys of learning for learning's sake are appreciated; where different fields of knowledge can be sampled; where students can ponder great books, conduct interesting research, or debate important questions without regard for their practical application. The best defense against the omnipresence of a marketing mentality is the kind of education that has roots in antiquity and has survived into this new millennium---the liberal arts.

Premised on the disinterested pursuit of knowledge without immediate application, a liberal arts education offers students a temporary reprieve from the work-a-day world. At its best, liberal education develops what John Cardinal Newman has called a "philosophical habit of mind," a healthy skepticism, which is especially useful in today's overly commercialized world. As we all know, the added bonus is that a liberal arts education, although it works in an indirect and ineffable way, pays out handsome dividends personally and professionally. It helps to develop the skills, the knowledge, the critical thinking, the quality of mind, the flexibility, the reflective habits, and the ethical perspectives that are likely to lead to fulfillment and success in today's complex, rapidly changing world.

In short, the chief business of the American academy is education---the finest education in the world. In order to sustain that excellence, we must ensure that the omnivorous forces of the market do not subvert our inestimable liberal arts traditions. Clearly, we live in a competitive world, but we must guard against students selling themselves short or out.