Only Connect? What is the Future of Higher Education

Steven Volk, March 3, 2014

Last November, our Oberlin colleague, David Orr, delivered the Presidential Lecture entitled: “Only Connect: A 4th Gyre.” (If you missed it, you can catch up with it on YouTube).  David borrowed E.M. Forster’s phrase, “only connect” to underline what is needed to “turn vicious cycles into virtuous cycles that eventually transform our politics, economy, cities, buildings, infrastructure, landscapes, transportation, agriculture, technologies, and our manner of thinking.”

Forster’s injunction, from Howards End, spoke to the importance of bringing all the parts of one’s life together: “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”


EM Forster, Howards End

This charge, to “only connect,” ricocheted around my brain as I read a new study produced by the Gallup organization for the Lumina Foundation.  “What America Needs to Know About Higher Education Redesign,” argues that “the importance of post-secondary education in preparing and connecting people with a good job” should be at the center of a redesign of higher education. By stressing that single purpose, the study stands Forster on his head, arguing in favor of a life in fragments, one in which students are disconnected from community and purpose, to say nothing of passion and prose.

Now, Lord knows, I have nothing against our graduates getting “good jobs.” Indeed, we would do well to think about this more. But the study so assiduously frames its findings within a master narrative of an education system that has failed in its mandate to prepare workers for the labor market that it ignores not just the larger purposes of a higher education, but its own data. To cite just one example, the poll highlights the finding that 95% of the public judge the quality of the college or university on the ability of its graduates to “get a good job.” 95%! That’s hard to argue with – the U.S. public want a higher ed sector that “only connects” graduates and jobs.

And yet an even higher percentage of respondents (98%) judged the quality of a college or university not on its connection to the job market, but on the qualifications of the faculty, and a substantial majority (86%) found the percentage of students who pursue further education to be of significant importance when determining the worth of colleges and universities. These points weren’t included in Lumina’s bullet points or picked up by the press; neither particularly fit into their seemingly preferred degree-to-job narrative.

Even more disturbing was the second part of the study which polled “business leaders” (also defined as “thought leaders”) in executive positions (but not further described). Nearly 70% of those polled said they would consider hiring employees without a post-secondary degree or certification, and only 16% of them agreed that “most jobs at my business require a post-secondary degree or credential to be successful.” Thought leaders? A myriad of other polls have underscored the importance of a post-secondary education for future success in the labor market(See, for example, results from the American Association of Colleges and Universities and here and Northeastern University). But, evidently, not those questioned by Lumina/Gallup.

Let me be clear. We do want our graduates to earn a living, to be able to find meaningful employment. If the employers at Google or Genetech or Ford express a dissatisfaction with college graduates, shouldn’t we pay attention? Yes, at some level, we should. But not, it would appear, from Lumina’s particular group of 623 business leaders. A further data point from the study (one that, again, didn’t make the highlight reel) discloses that 68% of the employers surveyed said that it was somewhat to very likely that employees at their businesses who earned a post-secondary degree while working for them would leave their current jobs for employment at other firms.


Student working in Statistics Machine Room, 1964, London School of Economics

I’m no wizard at statistics, but what we seem to have here is a poll taken of “thought leaders” who (in significant percentages) don’t think post-secondary education is important for hiring at the present time, don’t think that post-secondary education will be needed for a large percentage of their firms’ jobs in the future, and recognize that most of their employees would abandon ship if they actually did manage to earn a post-secondary degree. Yet the study headlines the fact that only 11% of those polled strongly agree with the statement that higher education is actually graduating students to meet their needs. Huh?

As troubling as I find this instrumentalist view of higher education, I think the Lumina/Gallup data is useful in three respects. (1) It encourages those of us in the very rarified atmosphere of liberal arts colleges (only 4% of the total higher education sector) to think about how we relate to the sector as a whole and, more to the point, what we believe higher education should do for all who pass through its doors. (2) It draws attention to the fact that employment is what will be in the future for almost all our students, and while that employment will not be as narrowly defined as Lumina suggests, we do need to think about the connection between the education we provide and preparation for that future. (3) Finally, and importantly, it begs the question of what it is that we do in higher education.  I’ll only address the last point here by circling back to the charge to “only connect.”

David Orr was not the only writer on higher education to look back to Forster. In 1998, another environmentalist, the historian William Cronon, published a lovely article in The American Scholar titled, “‘Only Connect…’ The Goals of a Liberal Education.” (You might remember Cronon from 2011 when the Republican Party of Wisconsin subpoenaed his emails in an attempt to intimidate environmentalists at the University of Wisconsin.) As opposed to the Lumina Foundation, whose study suggests that higher education is solely about preparing graduates for their first, entry-level (and apparently dead-end) jobs, Cronon takes a broader view of what it is we do, one that is so engaging I hope you will read his article, which I’m offering as this week’s “Article of the Week.” (You can find it here, and in CTIE’s Blackboard site: CTIE>Article of the Week>March 3, 2014.)

What do we mean by a “liberal education,” Cronon asks? He points out that “liberal,” is derived from the Latin (liberalis) meaning “free.” But it’s also rooted in the Old English word lēodan (“to grow”) and lēod (“people), not to mention the Greek word eleutheros (“free”) and even the Sanskrit word rodhati, meaning “one climbs,” “one grows.” As he sums up: “Freedom and growth: here, surely, are values that lie at the very core of what we mean when we speak of a liberal education…it aspires to nurture the growth of human talent in the service of human freedom” (74).


Lieut. F. Schwatka, Wonderland; or, Alaska and the Inland Passage (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1886), 13.

In his essay, Cronon considers what should go into a liberal education curriculum. But, in the end, he remarks that it’s not really about the items in the curriculum, the boxes you check off, so much as the values we seek to instill in the students who share that educational process with us. To this end, he describes ten such values. I’ll list them here, but recommend that you read the article and discuss the points raised with colleagues.

How does one recognize liberally educated people, Cronon asks?

1. They listen and they hear.
2. They read and they understand.
3. They can talk with anyone.
4. The can write clearly and persuasively and movingly.
5. They can solve a wide variety of puzzles and problems.
6. They respect rigor not so much for its own sake but as a way of seeking truth.
7. They practice humility, tolerance, and self-criticism.
8. They understand how to get things done in the world.
9. They nurture and empower the people around them.

And, of course,

10. They follow E. M. Forster’s injunction from Howard’s End: “Only connect…”

If I had to choose between Lumina’s idea of higher education and Bill Cronon’s…well, no contest.

I’d like to periodically return to these points and see how we can develop a discussion around each of them. Are these the characteristics we want to see in our graduates? Are there others? How are they reflected in our curriculum and our graduation requirements?  Much to think about.

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