A central tension has arrhythmically disrupted the heart of the university since its inception. On the one hand, some argue, the university’s sole purpose is to animate the life of the mind. As T.H. Huxley famously declared in 1894, “The primary business of universities has to do merely with pure knowledge and pure art – independent of all application to practice; with the advancement of culture and not with the increase of wealth or commodities.” On the other, it is hard to deny that higher education has always (and I mean, always) prepared students for their post-graduate futures, whether, in the beginning, as learned men of the church, or later as “gentlemen” who would embody and perpetuate specific cultural norms, as women who would become teachers, nurses or educated wives, as state bureaucrats or colonial administrators, as those who would fuel the nation’s economy or who possess the creative imagination to invent the jobs of the future. Indeed, one could argue that the only ones not prepared by their university years to do something else after graduation are the faculty, we who remain in place while everyone else moves on.
If the pure vs. practical battle has been a long one, more recently the scale has tipped ever more heavily toward the “practical” side. We find ourselves criticized for teaching poetry rather than plumbing, economics rather than accounting. We’re spending too much time encouraging our students to look at art and not enough focusing on the vocational skills needed for the labor market of the future. Indeed, if one were to ask the state legislators who control the purse strings of higher education, our sole job is to serve up “career ready” graduates.
Those of us who teach in private liberal arts colleges could, until recently, feel a bit sheltered from the “more practical” drum beat that has become deafening for colleagues who work at public universities and in community colleges. But surging tuitions, stagnant wages, an increasingly segmented labor market, unaffordable urban rents, rising income inequalities, and concerned parents have all come knocking on our door as well, demanding, justifiably, that, as we attend to the “pure,” we do not neglect the “practical.” We are increasingly being asked to consider more thoughtfully the way in which our concerns for nurturing our students as critical and responsible thinkers can be more intentionally linked to preparing students for their careers, for their (multiple) employment futures. (The historian William Cronon tried to square this circle by arguing that education should “aspire to nurture the growth of human talent in the service of human freedom.”) Continue reading