KENNEDY: Daniels diminishing higher learning

August 23, 2014

Sheila Suess KennedyIn the past couple of weeks, I’ve had several reminders of a persistent disconnect between academics and other Americans—even well-educated, professional Americans—over the purpose and value of scholarly research. The most recent came in the form of (yet another) dust-up at Purdue University triggered by former Indiana governor and current Purdue President Mitch Daniels.

During an interview, Daniels criticized faculty on regional campuses such as IPFW for engaging in research. “You are there to provide an affordable option that prepares young people well for the careers that are available and the jobs that are being sought in the area where you live.”

Last April, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni made a point that has clearly escaped Indiana’s former governor.

“Do we want our marquee state universities to behave more like job-training centers, judged by the number of students they speed toward degrees, the percentage of those students who quickly land good-paying jobs and the thrift with which all of this is accomplished? In the service of that, are we willing to jeopardize some of the trailblazing research these schools have routinely done and the standards they’ve maintained?”

I would suggest an even more basic question: Are we willing to value education? Do Daniels and those who cheer him on even recognize the difference between education and job training? Their dogged focus on the latter suggests that they see little value in the liberal arts, or in the basic research activities that contribute to the sum of human understanding and knowledge.

America has a long and ignoble history of anti-intellectualism. We sneer at “pointy-headed” scholars. We value knowledge—when we do—for its short-term instrumental value, and that value had better be pretty obvious.

Faculty at IPFW responded to Daniels by reminding him that their research not only contributes to local and regional information needs, but also enriches the quality of instruction. “Our students … expect and deserve to sit in classes with instructors who are engaged as scholars in their fields and who, through that engagement, can best guide students … .”

Even the most cursory look at student evaluations of their professors will confirm that effective teaching requires ongoing intellectual engagement with the subject matter.

Ironically, the current political focus on what we used to call “vocational education” not only minimizes the value of a liberal education, it ignores the reality of today’s job market. Most college graduates will have several careers—not just jobs, but careers—and a significant number of those have yet to be invented. (We know this and other things about the job market because scholars have done research.)

Students who emerge with “training” rather than an education that prepares them to think—defined as the ability to apply critical analytic skills to a rapidly changing economy and world—will soon need retraining.

Students who have been taught to think only instrumentally—who value only such instruction as is immediately applicable economically, who are satisfied with the “how” and never ask “why”—are already at a considerable disadvantage. Universities enroll too many of those students now, and I often want to tell them: If you just want to learn how to manufacture widgets or fix computers, go to vocational school.

There are plenty of things wrong with our institutions of higher education. Pursuing research that illuminates issues and informs our decision-making isn’t one of them.

Someone needs to explain to President Daniels the difference between an institution of higher education and a trade school.•

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Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. She blogs regularly at www.sheilakennedy.net. She can be reached at skennedy@ibj.com. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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