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“I Come to Mostly Praise Higher Education, Not Bury It”

As a young guy, I had planned on making my life in higher education – or the “academy” as I liked to say – not that things worked out back then.  Nearly four decades later I can’t deny I was disappointed and often angry when things didn’t mesh.  But what I can say is that I am exceedingly pleased my career has worked out the way it has, as the sense of satisfaction I’ve derived from conceiving and then leading Center of the American Experiment for a long time has been grander, I’m confident, than any fulfillment I could have found in any college or university.  And as an added bonus, my exhilaration continues to grow, as Chairman Ron Eibensteiner and President John Hinderaker, along with dozens of other directors and staffers, take the Center even higher and further.  Just about to the stars.  Or maybe beyond.

Whoa, Mitch.  Slowdown boy.  What’s gotten into you?  You’re not sounding terribly Minnesotan. Take a breath.

(Pause)

My apologies for the epiphanic burst, especially since my intention is not to effuse about the Center, but to say good things about American higher education.  Why, exactly?

Given my academic and professional background – which includes serving on the staff University of Minnesota President C. Peter Magrath in the 1970s – I’m compelled to publicly reaffirm what’s invaluable about colleges and universities, as they’ve been catching more flak than usual recently.  Much of the criticism, of course, has been justified, as witness for prime example how campuses frequently are hothouses for the most uncivil and fascistically flavored in our midst, with the most distinguished institutions often home to the most intolerant First Amendment Deniers.

Nevertheless, many of the barbs directed at colleges and universities are overdone, as witness for example, some of the comments made by bloggers in response to a superb op-ed recently in the Star Tribune by my colleague Kathy Kersten.  More precisely (the point is key), the bloggers with whom I had problems didn’t necessarily criticize what Kathy had written, but rather contended that the liberal arts are useless.  And doing so as if she somehow concurred, when in fact my friend and colleague of more than 30 years had written nothing of the sort.  I know of no greater champion of the liberal arts than Kathy – so long as (the point is key again) literature and history and art and other subjects are taught sensibly.  Which is to say, not “deconstructed” into nonsensical and nasty speechifying about alleged American evil.

An additional reason for writing about higher education at this moment involves the very project Kathy wrote about in the Star Tribune: American Experiment’s major initiative, “Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree: Good News for Students, Parents, and Employers.”  As a co-leader of the project, along with Kathy and President John Hinderaker, I’m enormously proud of it, as many young people, without question, would be better served if they chose educational targets other than a B.A.  But recognizing that immutable fact of educational and vocational life doesn’t imply any slighting of America’s colleges and universities, which often are the best in the world.  To the extent that anyone interprets Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree in that disparaging way, it’s a misinterpretation in need of fixing.

So, what’s so special about our country’s institutions of higher learning?  Let me suggest just two abbreviated things for now.  While it is easy to pick arguments with every point that follows, as well as spotlight that I don’t say anything about hard-to-fathom tuition rates at many places, each assertion, I would contend, is fundamentally accurate.

Among the well-pedigreed critics who beat up on higher education, I assume there aren’t many who would be willing to de-learn what they learned in college.  Or would be willing to forfeit the professional, financial and other benefits and accolades they’ve enjoyed, in large measure, because they went to college.  If the educational route they took is not the type they would now recommend, which ones would they suggest?  Might they really expect young people to learn what they need to learn, mostly on their own, mainly on-line, either in or out of their pajamas?  No question this new-wave method works for sizable numbers of learners.  But for most?  Not a chance.

And then there is university research.  It’s no accident that American researchers in the sciences, medicine and other fields are the most life-enriching and life-saving in the world, just as it’s no accident that disproportionate numbers of the most successful researchers and scholars are on university faculties.  As a speechwriter a long time ago, I used to write about how the University of Minnesota, and not just in terms of research, is our state’s “engine.”  Might the line be heard as rhetorical overreach by some?  I trust yes.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

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