The act of seeking and obtaining education has remained since its inception, the cornerstone of Western society. Since the founding of the library at Alexandria, the Western world has thrived on the mental prowess of the brightest minds in the world. It is from these minds that we have received our advancements in the fields of philosophy, the sciences, as well as the liberal arts. But with the changing world, it has become increasingly difficult to determine whether or not the state of our educational system, more specifically, in the United States is still managing to serve the needs of the populace. It was not that long ago in human history that the act of becoming educated was solely reserved for the upper echelons of society, women were not allowed into such institutions of higher learning, and peasants were resigned to work the fields or perform what was seen as simple menial labor. However, in today’s America a determinate shift in both the significance of obtaining an education, as well as its delivery. And within this cultural has begun toward employing modern business strategy in all aspects of American life, it is no surprise that this has affected education as well. As a society, America has become less concerned with the classical model of pedagogy, and more concerned with churning out graduates who are, at times incapable of competing in the world market. As the economy nears the completion of a shift from a local, to a national, and even global economy, it is worth examining the traditional model of academia, as well as an alternative model that may better suit American society in the production of a diligent and useful citizenry. As one of the most important things a person can achieve in their lifetime, it is useful to examine what education is, what it ought to be, and whether or not it is able to remain, in any sense of the word, relevant.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the most renowned writers and essayists, delivered a number of commencement speeches during his lifetime. It was through these speeches that his view on education was made entirely clear. Emerson believed that education was not solely to be left to the confines of the hallowed halls of academia, but rather, it is something that takes an entire world to achieve. It is from his point of view on education that we may derive the modern adage “experience is the best teacher.” Emerson believed that we as human beings are endowed with an uncanny ability to discern key behaviors and characteristics about the world around us; and as such he believed that the role of the Academy should be to foster the genius that lies dormant within every man, and that the Academy should assist its students in furthering the intellectual pursuits that they desire. He also says, that since we as a society are not the kind of society that lends an ear of corn to those who are hungry, nor are we the type of society that gives shoes to those who walk with bare feet, and that poor man should be allowed to place his hand in the pocket of the rich, and say “educate me not as you will, but as I will” (Emerson). It is the responsibility of the Academy to provide what Emerson calls the rudiments of knowledge. We could think of this as the ideal liberal arts education, an education which at its best, seeks to create the ideal of the well-rounded individual; creating someone who is in possession of a good deal of civic literacy, and cultural understanding, as well as a foundational knowledge of math and science; skills with which if one so desires, one can pursue further inquiry into any one of the aforementioned fields. This is what education ought to be. It should be liberating, and it should enable an individual, and indeed the collective to pursue its goals with vigor in order to create an ideal society of functional and productive adults. What education has become however, is a far more sinister beast.
It can be witnessed by anyone with high school aged siblings, children, or acquaintances that our system of public education has become diluted by the entrance of private investors into what was once a government sponsored arena. It may not be apparent, but with the recent $40 billion in budget cuts, and the bad state of education in the United States for the past five years, it has become increasingly necessary for public education institutions to find a way to compensate for the lack of resources available to its students and faculty (citation needed). While private business may not be the most ubiquitous intruder in the educational system at the high school level, it has certainly become one of the major players in postsecondary education since the idea of the modern university was enacted.
With television commercials for schools such as University of Phoenix, ITT Technical Institute, and the Art Institute of California, it is no wonder that the face of education is changing irrevocably. Schools such as these place a great deal of focus on starting as many students as possible, and as such, are constantly enrolling new students on a monthly, weekly, or sometimes even daily rather than taking the traditional model of waiting for spring and fall classes to begin. Just like a factory, at these kinds of institutions there is always a class or program ready to start when you are (College Inc.). On the one hand, someone may look at this fact and think that this adds to the value of such institutions, as one who seeks education may readily find it when he or she is ready. However, it is important to realize that these institutions by and large, only care about their student body in so far as they are able to keep graduation rates high, and attrition rates at a minimum. This means that in many cases, the education is watered down to that which a student would’ve received in high school, but simply tailored to a specific vocational field. Now, that is not to say that such institutions are great blight on the realm of education; however, we should recognize that such institutions ought not masquerade as places of higher learning, but rather a place of training; instruction in a specific skill or trade. With 54% of our medical industry related workers coming out of such institutions of “higher learning” it is obvious that such institutions do serve a role (Shows), it is however unwise to think that all such institutions feel as though they have a moral obligation to educate those who come to them.
While many of these schools are indeed reputable, such job-training institutions seek accreditation solely because with such an accreditation, the doors to federal funding are open. These institutions are growing larger in terms of the segment of the population which they serve, as well as the amount of federal funding they consume. Such institutions consume up to 86% of federal student aid (College Inc.). And often times use aggressive sales tactics to recruit their students. While many here of success stories, and promises of job placement it is worth noting that since these types of institutions rely primarily on modern business practices, their bottom line is the same as that of a factory: produce a satisfactory part with the least expenditure, and the greatest possible profit. In short, it is the cookie-cutter approach to education. Apparently however, these problems are not new as even Emerson chastises the Academy of his day of sometimes stifling the genius of students, simply because the demand placed on such institutions often exceeds what they are able to provide (Emerson). However, for profit motives make it possible to give rise to dubious character and practice. And while the problem may have been present in Emerson’s day as well, it is a reasonable fear that the addition of profit motives into the equation may further exacerbate the issue.
What then are we to do? If vocational training is not the same as education, and the goal of education is to allow those who seek it the opportunity for intellectual enlightenment, then the best thing to do, is to take the distinction between training and education, and allow for both to take place as independent systems. That is to say, since such institutions consume such a disproportionate amount of federal student aid money, give them an incentive to turn nonprofit, examine such institutions for whether or not they deserve the regional accreditation they hold, and allow such institutions to consume that federal aid only insofar as they are able, to meet the demand for skilled labor. All other institutions masquerading as places of higher learning should be allowed to fall by the wayside. This would allow traditional academia to resume its role of allow knowledge seekers to pursue intellectual enlightenment. This is the only way that we can truly hope to preserve the function of a true education, while maximizing the efficacy of vocational training. All too often, we see traditional colleges and universities being asked to fill a role that is already being adequately fulfilled by private for-profit institutions today, thus putting too much weight on an already overextended system. Classrooms in today’s community colleges and universities are failing to meet both the need for adequate training in a professional sense, as well as the need to foster the pursuits that have advanced our society to this point. If this continues, this will surely dilute the integrity of education until it becomes an institution that holds no value, relegating its arms to nothing more than mere edifices, and its halls a ghostly reminder of what we once valued, only to leave a wound, where thriving heart once existed.