What is College For? A View from the Clouds

Cambridge, naturally

“What Is College For?” Notre Dame philosophy professor Gary Gutting recently asked, in the NYT.  Answer:  basically, it’s for ideas.

Gutting’s article was interesting to me as perhaps one of the purest examples of “Ivory Tower” thinking I’ve ever seen.  Interesting, perhaps disturbing, and finally unconvincing.

His evidence for the value of college to students is… self-reported student findings that, e.g., college was “very useful in helping them grow intellectually.” Of course, almost anything that a person might do between the ages of 18 and 22 could be useful in helping them grow intellectually — talk to anyone who’s travelled abroad, gone to work in their uncle’s business, or done national service –  and it’s hardly surprising that after years of being told that this is the purpose of their family’s huge investment, students tend to report back the observation.

His thesis is that “the raison d’être of a college is to nourish a world of intellectual culture; that is, a world of ideas, dedicated to what we can know scientifically, understand humanistically, or express artistically.”

Well, that’s interesting.  According to whom, or what?  He cites no previous thinker, no historical evidence, no particular cognizance of the history of education even.  Then, he makes the amazing claim that “this world [of intellectual culture]  “is mainly populated by members of college faculties: scientists, humanists, social scientists…and those who study the fine arts.” This is so fact-free as to be hardly worth rebutting.  What about the majority of scientists, who work for governments, pure research institutes, in health/medicine, or in industry?  Or the entire media world, which is primarily non-academic?  Technology, a radical transformative force in matters intellectual and otherwise, and mostly a non-academic phenonomen, is likewise written off.


Even accepting Gutting’s claim, you wouldn’t know from his remarks that there is a vigorous and useful debate going on about how you might detect and measure this “intellectual culture” impact of academia.  Does Gutting think that the citizens and governments of the world are going to keep forking over trillions just on the strength of an airy claim?  I’d hope not, and I’d hope that he’d hope not, if he believes in critical inquiry.

In the UK, the Higher Education Funding Council’s proposed 2009 Research Excellence Framework (REF) sparked extensive debate about impact of research, a useful compendium of which debate is gathered at “The Danger of Assessing Research by Economic Impact” by Prof. Leslie Ann Goldberg of Univ. Liverpool, Computer Science.

In the US, a narrower but lively debate has recently attended the work of Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University and affiliate of the DC-based Center for College Affordability and Productivity.  Based on analysis of research activity in four mid-ranked US English departments, he argues that humanities “research” consumes a large portion of department resources while producing hardly any measurable impact, e.g. in citations of the research work.  See “The Research Bust”, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Dec 4, 2011.

Personally, I think the crucial larger story there is the increasingly threatened and shifting alliance between STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) and non-STEM disciplines.  While we still hear the ideal, exemplified by Gutting’s article, of the unified truth-seeking academy, in practice the pact has been crumbling for decades.  It is fairly obvious that the research system of the STEM disciplines works differently than that of the humanities, being based on (or aspiring to, at least) distinct principles of falsifiable hypotheses and reproducible results, with clear pathways to technological application of discoveries.  (or at least, aspires to these principles: see “Scientists’ Elusive Goal: Reproducing Study Results.” Wall Street Journal, Dec 2, 2011, on recent interesting results on widespread non-reproducibility).

The social sciences partake of this scientific/technical framework to a degree, and also have their distinct own realm of engagement in studying/shaping social policy;  professional study such as law has, of course, its own self-evident rationale.

activity map of "humanities computing" from DigitalHumanities.org

That leaves the humanities, uneasily adrift between the truth metrics and justifications more solidly occupied by other disciplines.  (with the upstart “digital humanities” energetically embracing science/technology methods, but not necessarily harbored with solid metrics or  justifications.  Also, often eschewing affiliation with the traditional humanities disciplines, as shown in this chart of the “extra-academic professions,” or what DH leading light Bethany Nowviskie @nowviskie of the University of Virginia calls “alt-academics”).

Yet, this complicated landscape is either outside or beneath the notice of Gutting’s “What is College For?”, which doesn’t present an argument, really.  I would hardly even call it an ideal, because an ideal would be philosophically consistent and encompassing, rather than being parochially tied to a particular institution such as contemporary higher-ed.  No, I would say Gutting’s view, at least as expressed in this article, is closer to mere ideology:  that is, a set of beliefs constructed (consciously or not) by a group in order to promote and self-explain its socio-economic position.  That’s fine, as far as it goes, but I don’t think it very effectively describes or defends higher education, or much exemplifies either philosophy or intellectual culture.