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What's happened to 'higher' education?

We've traded the foundations of elevated thought for the allure of scientific progress.

By Daniel N. Robinson / May 13, 2009

Oxford, England

If the term "higher education" is to be distinguished from other forms of learning or training, surely the distinguishing feature cannot simply be the number of years students have devoted to the cultivation of an ability. Were that the case, the longer one worked at the grinding wheel or in the paint shop, the higher one's education would be.

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No, what the term refers to is the study of things that are themselves higher; higher in the order of abstraction, higher in that plane of thought and of action on which the examined life is lived. Understood in these terms, higher education found itself a century and a half ago on a collision course with what the general public was equally pleased to call "the real world," the world of commerce, careers, and popular estimations of success.

The collision finally occurred on Oct. 4, 1957, when the Western democracies awakened to the news that the Soviet Union had launched the satellite Sputnik. This event, more than any other in recent times, seemed to vindicate criticisms that had been directed at colleges and universities for decades, namely, that the prevailing curriculum of study, except for the parts that were expressly preprofessional, were irrelevant to life, indifferent to the real needs of society, out of step with the modern world, and plagued by the perspective of the prep school headmaster.

Our arch adversaries in Moscow knew better than to squander the national brainpower on idle chatter. It was time for the US to know better, or else! Several days after Sputnik was launched, The New York Times carried ominous warnings from Dr. Elmer Hutchisson, director of the American Institute of Physics: Unless future generations appreciate the role of science in modern society and understand the conditions under which science thrives, he said, "our way of life is, I am certain, doomed to rapid extinction."

Within a decade, stimulated by the civil rights movement and an unpopular war, criticism moved to a decidedly shrill part of the register, dismissing all traditional features of higher education as simply irrelevant and – shame of shames – elitist.

All this, of course, had been said long before. In 1692, the great English philosopher John Locke warned against an education that would trade "your son's innocence and virtue for a little Greek and Latin." He disparaged "the learning now in fashion in the schools of Europe," insisting that "a gentleman" can well do without it.

We see as early as the Age of Newton, and in the writing of Newton's most committed disciple, an impatience with attention to the remote past at the expense of a future that stands to benefit from the achievements of science and the practical arts. One does not reach the moon by way of Plato's dialogues.

The roots of higher education