Deep Learning, Democracy, And Hope For Higher Education

US higher education is, without question, operating in one of the most challenging, rapidly changing, but also hopeful times in its history. Such a bold statement demands, and deserves, some explanation. After all, the challenges facing US higher education writ large – and public higher education in particular – are well known. All of these challenges have been exacerbated, and in many cases the urgencies elevated and need for change accelerated, by the pandemic.

We have watched as both costs and expectations have risen while public support has declined. We have seen the popularity of traditional academic majors ebb and flow, while new fields of study and entirely new disciplines have evolved, demanding new resources and new expertise. We have seen our traditional student markets decline, while we all compete for elusive new geographic markets (both domestic and international) and non-traditional (or what some are now calling ‘new traditional’) students. Our colleges and universities are doing more with less, reaching farther away from their traditional and comfortable campus boundaries, and having to compete for resources, rankings, and talent with institutions that have become more sophisticated and more strategic about competing and winning.

As a group, students turn over and evolve faster than faculty. Campus facilities are struggling to keep up with both. Investments in student services, IT infrastructure, health and wellness, and core research facilities are demanding increasing percentages of a university’s budget. And most universities have become more dependent on graduate and professional degree tuition revenue, research indirect, private and corporate philanthropy, and non-degree activities to generate the revenue needed, not only to meet expenses, but to invest in faculty, facilities, programming, and both physical and virtual campuses.

And there is the national political landscape that seems to be bolstering and in some cases creating divisions. We are a nation increasingly divided, exhibiting little respect for and even less confidence in our leaders, and (it seems) increasingly willing to ignore facts and accept falsehoods. Civil discourse is being replaced by angry, divisive partisanship and ideology. Science is invoked inconsistently and understood even less. The ubiquitous nature of and access to information (true or false, complete or partial) has made it easy to bolster one’s position without having to acknowledge the existence of contradictory viewpoints or even ideas. We are relocating to the extremes where it is simpler, more absolute, and cleaner; rather than the more moderate middle where it more complicated, more nuanced, and often messier. We have become a nation of absolute positions rather than one built on dialogue and debate, thoughtful discourse, and inclusion of ideas. We choose to dig in rather than engage in discourse that might expand our thinking. We are less receptive to such expansion. We choose to stand with people who look like us, sound like us, think like us, and believe what we believe. We choose our media and news outlets similarly. It is hard to aspire to be truly inclusive when we are increasingly partisan, divided, ideologically focused, or intellectually isolated.

America’s colleges and universities, long the envy of the world – though, like much of our nation, facing challenges to their long-held dominance – are structured as communities for expansive learning. They are creating new knowledge, leading the way in scientific advances, and driving social innovation, equity, and justice. But they are also accused of being too liberal, indoctrinating students rather than truly educating them, and shielding them from disparate viewpoints. Colleges and universities are being accused of pandering to students, being overly solicitous and overly accommodating, and failing to prepare students for the “real world.” Coupled with the increased scrutiny on the value of higher education, rising costs to families (largely a result of decreased state support, but also driven by increased federal compliance mandates and increased expectations of the university by students and families) and the perception that a college education is not necessary to achieve success, US higher education finds itself at risk of marginalization.

This may still be viewed as a hopeful time for higher education. If our colleges and universities rise to the challenges, make the needed changes, and recommend to the ideals upon which US higher education was built (and has become best in the world), they can continue to drive innovation, discovery, and economic growth while ensuring our nation’s prosperity, democracy, and security.

A hopeful time for higher education? What can be the basis for such a bold statement in the face of so many challenges?

First, where our nation has faced its greatest challenges, colleges and universities have always come through. Whether with innovation, cure, justice, knowledge, discovery, or mission expansion – America’s higher educational institutions have stepped up and delivered. Second, US universities are filled with technological and social innovators, explorers and scientists, artists and educators. Social movements take root and thrive on our campuses before moving out into the broader society. Medical discoveries and scientific breakthroughs happen every day at our universities. Our colleges and universities model ideals of inclusion and work tirelessly every year to achieve ever higher goals and ever broader scope. They literally created the terms interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary, service learning, and flipped classroom. And they did all of this during a long period of decreasing state support, escalating costs, and unfunded federal mandates. They have never thrown in the towel. They persevered and they innovated. They adapted and they thrived.

But the move away from liberal education, and toward pre-professional education seemingly at the exclusion, marginalization, or even demonization of liberal education, has US higher education at another crossroads. In some ways, this is a tipping point for the principles and the centrality of liberal education. Will universities recommit to these values ​​and reaffirm the importance of liberal education even as new and increasingly specialized and technical fields emerge? Or will the external pressures of demonstrating employability and short-term return on investment win out? Will universities be able to make the case for the centrality of liberal education? Or will internal voices (whether resisting or demanding change) be the loudest, serving only to fuel some of the most negative perceptions of higher ed? This may be one of the greatest challenges facing higher education today. And the decisions that are made and the paths that are chosen in the coming years may be more important than most people realize. The public is watching. Public perception matters. And public confidence and public trust are at risk.

In some ways, just as the very soul of our nation – our democracy – is at risk, so too is the very soul of higher education. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the “liberal” label is at the core of both discussions, challenges, and threats. This is a highly charged word today, often a surrogate for or conflated with other causes, ideals, or positions. All too often today, words such as liberal and conservative are used to deflect, misdirect, obfuscate, or isolate. One of liberal education’s biggest problems is the use, misuse, and certainly misunderstanding of the word liberal in this context.

Liberal education, the cornerstone of American higher education, never referred to the teaching of liberal ideologies, but rather referred to providing students with liberal (broad) education across the disciplines. Liberal education was about learning to learn, to synthesize, to engage in deep learning, to be a complete and learned member of society. It was the ideal of the broadly educated individual capable of functioning as an informed citizen in a democracy. It was not political. It was, in fact, quite practical. It was not ideological, it was idealistic.

Liberal education and liberal arts are not the same but they have common elements. The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) defines liberal education as “an approach to undergraduate education that promotes integration of learning across curriculum and co-curriculum, and between academic and experiential learning, in order to develop specific learning outcomes that are essential for work, citizenship, and life.”

Liberal arts (or liberal arts education) has its roots far earlier, dating back to the Ancient Greece and Greek scholars such as Aristotle, Pythagoras, and Socrates, and continuing into the Middle Ages with the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) constructs. While elements of what constituted the liberal arts have changed over time, the principles have remained the same, namely preparing citizens capable of contributing to society. Today, the liberal arts are widely understood to include natural sciences, social sciences, arts, and humanities. And the distinction still broadly holds that a liberal arts course of study contrasts with those that are primarily vocational, professional, or technical. Of course, there is room (and merit) to debate this point, the need to make it, or the consequences of such distinctions.

The term “liberal arts” itself, like so many things today, has been co-opted by people and groups far beyond the academy. It has been used to bolster arguments that college degrees no longer prepare graduates for jobs, careers, or success. It has been used to support rhetoric around the decline of higher education into something that is preaching ideology and teaching activism.

While these accusations are themselves blatantly agenda-driven, and paint with a very broad brush, they are not without foundation. Some disciplines at some institutions have eschewed the responsibility for demonstrating that their graduates, in fact, go on meaningful, productive, and lucrative careers. This feeds the preparation narrative. And some disciplines at some institutions are using their classrooms to spouse ideologies and incite activism around topics unrelated to the subject matter. This feeds the ideology/activism narrative. (It also highlights the tension between academic freedom and first amendment rights.) It’s often faculty from the same (typically small) group of departments that feed these narratives, whether intentionally or unintentionally. And these departments are most always found in Colleges of Arts and Sciences, the traditional home for the liberal arts. As such, this is a self-inflicted wound for the liberal arts, detracting from their importance, their value, and their centrality to a liberal education.

But it may be the “STEM vs. liberal arts” narrative, or forced dichotomy, that is the most insidious. No doubt made worse by the rising costs and expectations of higher education to prepare graduates for gainful employment, and the reality that the greatest demand and some of the highest paid jobs are in the STEM fields, this dichotomy has created a divide (yet another partisanship ) that serves neither our students nor employers well. This is a timely and critically important topic on which I have written recently.

Our great public universities can, once again, lead the way. My vision for public higher education is to become a model for adaptation and evolution, an exemplary for all of higher education as well as for other societal institutions. In addition to commitments by our colleges and universities to academic excellence and student success, to affordability and access, and to research and innovation, they should model curiosity, deep learning, integrative discovery, civility and civil discourse, civic engagement, and contribution to the public good – the ideals of liberal education. Socrates may have had it right. Lead with questions.

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