Kwame Anthony Appiah on the two visions of American higher education:
One vision focuses on how college can be useful — to its graduates, to employers and to a globally competitive America. When presidential candidates talk about making college more affordable, they often mention those benefits, and they measure them largely in dollars and cents. How is it helping postgraduate earnings, or increasing G.D.P.? As college grows more expensive, plenty of people want to know whether they’re getting a good return on their investment. They believe in Utility U.
Another vision of college centers on what John Stuart Mill called “experiments in living,” aimed at getting students ready for life as free men and women. (This was not an entirely new thought: the “liberal” in “liberal education” comes from the Latin liberalis, which means “befitting a free person.”) Here, college is about building your soul as much as your skills. Students want to think critically about the values that guide them, and they will inevitably want to test out their ideas and ideals in the campus community. (Though more and more students are taking degrees online, most undergraduates will be on campus a lot of the time.) College, in this view, is where you hone the tools for the foundational American project, the pursuit of happiness. Welcome to Utopia U.
Together, these visions — Utility and Utopia — explain a great deal about modern colleges and universities. But taken singly, they lead to very different metrics for success.
Appiah walks through this tired old dichotomy only in order to say: Why not both?
(To be clear: like Appiah, I am only addressing the American context. Things can be different elsewhere, as, for example, in Japan, where a government minister has just asked all public universities to eliminate programs in the social sciences and humanities, including law and economics, and to focus instead on “more practical vocational education that better anticipates the needs of society.”)
A good general rule: when someone constructs an argument of this type — Between A and B there seems to be a great gulf fixed, but I have used my unique powers of insight to discern that this is a false dichotomy and we need not choose! — it is unlikely that they have described A fairly or described B fairly or described the conflict between then accurately.
So let’s try to parse this out with a little more care:
Given this general state of affairs, with its range of sometimes-complementary and sometimes-conflicting forces at work, Appiah’s framing is simplistic — and also serves as a way to avoid the really key question for the coming years: Who will pay, and what will they pay for?