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What Is College For? The Public Purpose of Higher Education

reviewed by Adrian Huerta - May 16, 2012

coverTitle: What Is College For? The Public Purpose of Higher Education
Author(s): Ellen Condliffe Lagemann & Harry Lewis (eds.)
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807752754, Pages: 176, Year: 2011
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The purpose and benefits of higher education have long been debated in the public sphere. Who deserves access to the most selective colleges, or college at all? Do individuals or society benefit more from postsecondary education? How do colleges promote morally conscious values for their students? In light of the heightened demands for credentials and the professionalization of academic disciplines in higher education, this book engages in a dialogue to reconsider these pragmatic goals of U.S. higher education by examining the value of civic education. What Is College For? The Public Purpose of Higher Education argues that there is a need to reintegrate civic education in colleges and universities and move away from the consumer attitudes of parents, students, and industry. The authors of this edited text argue for an increased sense of personal and social responsibility as a main purpose of postsecondary education. This review highlights each of the six chapters in the volume and concludes with a discussion of the potential impact of this text on the field of postsecondary education.

What Is College For? The Public Purpose of Higher Education is an edited collection from professors, administrators, and policy makers who stress the importance and challenges of civic education, the role of liberal arts colleges in creating critical thinkers and citizens, and the continuous evolution of higher education. Ellen Condliffe Lagemann and Harry Lewis’s introduction lays the foundation, discussing the current status of higher education and how civic education can refocus the purpose and various missions of postsecondary education. Throughout the book, the authors provide an overview of the historical context of liberal arts college values and the benefits of civic education integration throughout students’ social and academic tenure. In Chapter 1, “Renewing the Civic Mission of American Higher Education,” the depreciation of civic education in response to various constituents’ interests is mentioned. Lagemann and Lewis discuss the professionalization of higher education and the competing interests of faculty, students, and staff, which may narrow their investment in their home institution. In Chapter 2, “Science, Enlightenment, and Intellectual Tensions in Higher Education,” Douglas Taylor focuses on civic education that is embedded in liberal arts colleges. He reminds us that these colleges have not deviated from their mission of providing opportunities for humanities-based education. These campuses have nurtured an atmosphere for self-discovery through interactions with faculty and professional staff and on-campus living experiences. At the same time, these campuses have continued to be successful as social and financial institutions.  Chapter 3, “Liberated Consumers and the Liberal Arts College” by Elaine Tuttle Hansen, highlights the challenges of providing a traditional liberal arts education to a group of traditionally aged students. Hansen also attempts to address the issue of scalability. That is, how do we scale up educational opportunities without comprising the unique value of a college degree on a particular campus? This question may be highly contentious as we account for college ranking and alumni interest, and maintain quality academic experiences for students. In Chapter 4, “The Other 75%: College Education Beyond the Elite,” Paul Attewell and David Lavin provide a frame to examine the “other 75%,” which includes research universities and nonselective colleges. Chapter 4 is important in discussing the challenges of civic education with a nontraditional student population that may be enrolled for other purposes besides intellectual enrichment. The chapter considers the impact of shifts in majors from humanities to more career-oriented fields, annual earnings disaggregated by discipline, access to different types of colleges, and the stresses of paying for tuition in an era of increased costs.

One of the gaps of this text is a lack of attention to the reality that higher education is no longer the main province of traditionally aged students who begin college at 18, with not as much life experience as older students. Instead, today’s student is more likely to be older, perhaps with families and work and other life experiences that may have shaped their moral and civic education in other ways. The same kinds of arguments might also be made about the increase in international students, who are more frequently seeking postsecondary education in the United States. How will colleges and universities integrate the needs and knowledge of these student populations while incorporating civic education? This question poses serious questions for faculty, administration, and professional staff, given funding limitations, enrollment expansion, and fractured views of the purpose of higher education. Some higher education institutions stress the importance of civic education via service learning opportunities, however, faculty members may not integrate those experiences into teachable moments for undergraduate students. A common theme throughout the book is the importance of civic education, yet one must be mindful of the economic conditions of the United States and the push toward a more standardized and measurable educational experience. How do colleges declare a sincere interest in educating students without acknowledging the constant tensions of balancing the institution’s growing need for accountability, attention to academic mission, and market pressures to recruit, retain, and graduate students?

The final two chapters of the volume address the role of graduate and professional education in a shifting society. Throughout the first four chapters, the authors develop a dialogue on the value and purpose of undergraduate education. William Sullivan extends the conversation into professional education in Chapter 5. This chapter, titled “Professional Education: Aligning Knowledge, Expertise, and Public Purpose,” emphasizes the importance of how students and universities define and facilitate various forms of inquiry, knowledge development and interpretation, and methods of training pre- and professional students. He firmly supports the notion that colleges and universities should integrate the public benefit of balancing technical abilities with the responsibility of creating a well-developed and ethically responsible cohort of professionals who will serve various communities. He integrates the lens of John Dewey to stress the importance of students’ experiences prior to engaging populations and the need to be critical consumers of information. The chapter could have benefited from focusing on clearly defining professional students. Did he mean undergraduates or graduate students seeking education, legal, dental, or medical careers? In Chapter 6, “Graduate Education: The Nerve Center of Higher Education,” Catharine Stimpson centers graduate education at the “the nerve center of higher education” and describes potential directions of graduate education in a globalized society while acknowledging its conception in the U.S. system of higher education. Graduate education allows colleges and universities to produce new knowledge that informs, and may improve the quality of life for, society. Her mention of the golden age of financial support from the federal government to produce research and train graduate students is an important indicator of a sustainable past that does not seem to be as stable in our current and future economic climate. We may ask, how will higher education teach and support citizenship for students, with a focus on rights and responsibilities and the benefit to the public good?

Based on such strong arguments for the need for civic education in postsecondary teaching and learning, it is surprising that the book did not provide a conclusion with next steps for implementation. However, the editors intentionally did not provide a conclusion. They omitted a final chapter in the hopes that readers will pose more questions about the direction of institutional goals and missions to support civic education. Although this edited book was not based on empirical evidence, it provides an opportunity for readers to begin to ask questions about the role of civic education in postsecondary institutions. What Is College For? The Public Purpose of Higher Education energizes an ongoing conversation about the mission of postsecondary education and the role of civic education on college campuses. The historical presentation of higher education and civic education offers a good resource for novice practitioners and seasoned administrators to position new initiatives for service learning with a social justice mission. This book has the potential to produce more questions for readers about the direction for their institution and what is valued in higher education, career preparation, cultivation of intellectual curiosity, credentialing, and graduate school development. The next five years will be telling regarding the values and mission of postsecondary education as resources dwindle and competition for student enrollment increases.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 16, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16769, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 1:07:25 PM

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About the Author
  • Adrian Huerta
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    ADRIAN H. HUERTA is a doctoral student in the Higher Education & Organizational Change program in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA. His research agenda focuses on Latino males, postsecondary education, and qualitative methods. He is an Education Pioneer Fellow and has recently published in the journal Metropolitan Universities.
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