What Are Our Goals?

November 29, 2010

Robert Sternberg, Provost at Oklahoma State, has a winning piece in today’s Inside Higher Education entitled “Defining a Great University.”  He contrasts the goals of elite private universities with land grant institutions, but he raises many great questions about the goals we want any institution of higher education to serve.  (A Psychologist, he was educated at Yale and Stanford, and worked previously at Yale and Tufts.)

Over and over, he raises the question of how institutions of higher education contribute to society, and how we embody answers to that question in the metrics by which institutions admit students or hire and promote faculty.

At the end, he asks: “What kinds of leaders do we want to develop? Is it possible that the huge emphasis on memory and analytical skills reflected by tests such as the SAT and ACT, and embodied in college-admissions processes, are having effects opposite to what we as a society might hope for? Are we producing leaders who are analytically adept but who fail in a wise and emotionally connected way to engage deeply with the crises our society currently is facing? Do we want a society in which we care more about how narrowly smart people are than about how wise and ethical they are?”

But I was especially struck by a contrast he posits in how various institutions conceive of human potential.  Again, he draws the distinction between “elite privates” and “land grants” but I think the difference holds just as much among private institutions, between the few prestige-endowed and -focused on the one hand, and all the others.  Money quote:

“Third, in admissions, the most selective institutions tend to be organized around a relatively fixed notion of human abilities and skills. Requiring sky-high SATs and ACTs make sense as important (although not exclusive) bases of admission only if one believes that they measure relatively fixed traits that project the future potential of the applicant. If abilities are highly modifiable, in contrast, then such test scores assess potentials largely at certain intervals in time and one can look at the college or university as providing a “zone of potential development” to help students use the ability levels they are at as starting points, not just as ending points. From the point of view of the land-grant mission, access provides a way for students to achieve the equal opportunity our society promises. Abilities are indeed modifiable so the institution can help each student reach the outer level of those abilities–to translate abilities into competencies and competencies into expertise.”

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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