Instrumental value

Steven Roy Goodman had a piece in last Sunday's "Outlook" section of the Washington Post in which he argued that undergraduate education needed to focus more on providing en education that is useful in the sense that tangible benefits are provided to students. And those tangible benefits involve skills that will help students to "advance in their intellectual and professional lives." As an example of things that do not provide such skills and thus do not contribute to advancement, he offers the following course titles: "Pornography and Evolution," "The Beatles Era," and "Introduction to Material Culture." Although later in the piece he declares that "liberal arts courses, taught in the context of free speech, have always helped open young minds to the excitement of the marketplace of ideas and to the value of even unpopular opinions," he doesn't provide a single example of such a course -- making his claim that "I'm not arguing that universities should teach only engineering, business and computer science" ring somewhat hollow.

As a professor who regularly teaches a course on science fiction and social science, I can't help but see this line of argument as something of a direct attack. In fact, it's part of a larger, more insidious trend in higher education that really bothers me: the excessive focus on short-term benefits to a college education, measured in terms of earning potential and/or job placement. There is something of a cultural syndrome -- call it "instrumentalitis" -- that inspires people to evaluate their educations in these narrow terms, obsessively asking what benefits some course or experience provided almost before the experience or course ends, and sometimes before it ends or even before it begins. But there's a logical paradox here: if you already knew what you were going to get out of a course, then why would you have to take it? Why not just go straight to the payoff? And why wouldn't universities just deliver payoffs, without the messy business of connecting students and faculty in the first place?

The whole trick of a good education is that it transforms the student in ways that the student -- and the faculty members -- cannot foresee. Classes are a joint product, emerging someplace between students and professors and the material with which they are collectively wrestling. A college environment is supposed to be a place where students can explore thing, try on ideas and positions, and generally craft themselves in a more or less unconstrained manner. It is not supposed to be job training, or the imparting of skills, or a giant realm of networking for internships and jobs; these things may happen and may exist, but they are IMHO distinctly secondary to the specific mission of undergraduate education, which is to allow people the space to discover who they want to be and then provide them with some resources that they can use to start producing themselves as those people. [In this, undergrad differs from graduate school; grad school is by definition more focused on the imparting of skills and the provision of employment.]

This is where my sci-fi course fits in. Juxtaposing works of social science with works of science fiction allows us to explore questions about whether prediction of social and political events and developments is possible, whether our relations with Others are or should (or can, especially if the Other is very different -- say, regarded to be other-than-human) be governed by notions of fear or love or mutual respect, whether technological changes make us more or less human: some of the classic "big questions" a) with which people should have to wrestle at some point in their lives; b) which are much more difficult to confront when holding down a job and paying a mortgage; c) which do not have immediate, measurable, quantifiable, earning-potential value but which are arguably more central to living a meaningful life than other technical skills.

Goodman is right that the cost of a university education is ballooning far too high, and getting way too out of step with the annual incomes of the people paying the tuition bills. His hope is that consumers will start to demand concrete, practical results for their purchase of a BA. That's my fear: that the high costs of a university education will inspire people to ever-greater heights of instrumentalitis, and lead to an elimination of courses like my social science fiction course precisely because it has no concrete benefits. At least not the sort that translate easily into jobs and higher earnings.

When I read things like that I fear for the future of the university.

</hellfire-and-brimstone sermon>

[Posted with ecto]

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