May 20, 2024

Perhaps you read a recent article in the noted linguist John McWhorter’s newsletter entitled “College Became the Default. Let’s Rethink That.” A genuine public intellectual, McWhorter is a progressive contrarian and an intellectual provocateur who writes for the public in ordinary language and whose opinions are utterly unpredictable.

As an outpouring of letters to the Times makes clear, his views do not conform to the current progressive orthodoxy that young people need four years’ further education post–high school. He strongly endorses the argument made by Bard College president Leon Botstein in his 1997 collection of essays, Jefferson’s Children, that the American system of education requires a radical overhaul.

Botstein’s book made a host of provocative arguments:

Botstein, of course, was not one to merely express opinions in a dogmatic way. His Bard early-college high schools and Bard College at Simon’s Rock, which McWhorter attended, sought to put his educational philosophy into practice, and a growing number of high schools across the country have embraced some of his ideas, offering many more elective and early-college classes.

Although much critical attention focused on Botstein’s call to radically rethink high school and let students exit in 10th grade, he also had some interesting things to say about college: that “college should be something some kids choose out of personal predilection” (in McWhorter’s words), not the default destination it has become.

Shouldn’t there be other pathways, McWhorter asks, for those who simply want a “piece of paper” and a “good job”? Shouldn’t there be other ways to produce “a society of solidly educated people”?

McWhorter concedes that this vision is a “pipe dream” but maintains that this thought experiment might prompt others to reflect on the realities of college today, an institution where rigor is in decline, where the liberal arts have been reduced to a mishmash of requirements, where learning is indeterminate and where vocationalism and pre-professionalism predominate.

Not surprisingly, most of the letters written in response to McWhorter’s musings expressed puzzlement and disappointment: “Puzzled by his assumption that so many students are biding their time until they get that ‘piece of paper’ so they can get a job. Disappointed by his cheerleading for a less educated America.”

Some letter writers accuse McWhorter of “dissing” college and respond by arguing that college-going should be universal. As one writer put it, “Learning to think critically about health and politics and having empathy for other cultures are important for everyone.”

As one commenter observes, much of college’s value lies outside one’s major: “I had all kinds of college experiences only diagonally; connected to preparing me for this life. I learned to speak pretty good French and minimal Spanish. I discovered Gawain and heroic couplets. I learned that I loved botany and anthropology. My mind exploded with existentialism and dramatic irony.”

To be sure, some respondents agreed with aspects of McWhorter’s arguments: that vocational and technical education should be more valued and more widely available, and that there need to be shorter, cheaper options.

But others vehemently disagree. One commenter notes that during the 1940s, the University of Chicago Lab School did graduate students with a high school diploma at the end of 10th grade—only later to revert to a 12th-grade curriculum.

Many agree with Howard Gardner of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education: that among college’s biggest problem is that too many students arrive without an understanding of what higher education has to offer and fail to take advantage of the many opportunities it offers. Colleges, in turn, need to do more “to ensure that every enrolled student can explore new areas and graduate better equipped to deal with work, civic and personal responsibilities.”

Interestingly, Gardner and a co-author, Wendy Fischman, have recently published The Real World of College: What Higher Education Is and What It Can Be, which in certain respects shares McWhorter’s belief that there is a crying need to rethink the American system of education.

This book argues that “higher education in the United States has lost its way,” that it suffers from “mission sprawl” and needs to focus more sharply on its core educational mission: to increase “‘higher education capital’—to help students think well and broadly, express themselves clearly, explore new areas and be open to possible transformations,” combat students’ egocentricity and cultivate “a community of learners who are open to change as thinkers, citizens and human beings.”

Drawing upon in-depth interviews with more than 2,000 students, alumni, faculty, administrators, parents and trustees from 10 colleges and universities conducted between 2013 and 2018, the authors document the number of students who struggle with mental health issues, stress, time management and a lack of connection and who narrowly focus on grades, workload, return on investment and career success, rather than on intellectual growth, learning and personal development.

Undergraduates, Fischman and Gardner argue, enter college with four different mental models: “inertial” (college as the inevitable next step), “transactional” (college as a prerequisite for middle-class status), “exploratory” (to learn new things) and “transformational.” In the authors’ minds, it’s the transformational ideal that is the most important, but it’s the perspective with the least traction. The transformational goal is to cultivate a student who will “reflect about and question one’s own values and beliefs, with the expectation … that one may change in fundamental ways.”

One of their book’s critics, Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and an executive editor of Education Next, argues that the book offers a “dearth of evidence” to show that students with an exploratory or transformational mind-set “learned more, studied more, reflected more, enjoyed their time more, or [did] more to advance their post-college prospects” than those with an “inertial” or a “transactional” mentality.

However, Hess does regard many of their programmatic and policy suggestions positively—enhancing student onboarding (to better align students with their college’s mission); integrating civics, ethics or work into the student experience (what the authors call “intertwining”); curbing curricular sprawl; strengthening mental health supports; and instituting more high-impact, educationally purposeful practices. He does, nonetheless, express reservations about some of their other proposals: to downplay intercollegiate athletics and extracurriculars and reduce the number of research centers.

It’s all too easy to dismiss various thought experiments, like McWhorter’s, as wishful thinking, as little more than building castles in the air. But much as many of Leon Botstein’s ideas, which struck many as pie-in-the-sky daydreams that couldn’t possibly scale, have, in fact, been incorporated—partially and incompletely, to be sure, but in some measure—into existing practice, the ideas that Fischman and Gardner advance about reaffirming a commitment to a more exploratory and transformational conception of the college experience are notions that I, for one, hope will gain purchase.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.