Fixing Higher Education (10)

February 26, 2011

James Brennan, Catholic University’s Provost, is next up in the “Fixing Higher Education” series from the Dan de Vise of the Washington Post.

Brennan addresses two problems.  His first advice is to “stick to quality.”  He rails against the “pervasive dumbing down of education at all levels in America.”  “[I]t’s short-sighted to dilute the standards of American higher education by playing to the lowest common denominator to reach a broader audience,” he argues.  Who could disagree?  Who does?  Is he arguing that we should focus higher education access on a smaller percentage of the population?  On only those who have the benefit of a high quality high school education?  If so, he’s in a very different place than Jamie Merisotis — or me for that matter.  If Brennan is for providing a high quality education for all, then how are we going to do that?  Railing against “dumbing down” isn’t at all helpful.  It’s just rhetoric.  Let’s hear a suggestion about what we should do to have high expectations — and meet them — for all.

Brennan’s second urging is to “go global — seriously.”  He urges that we need to prepare our students to be successful in the global economy.  His fix is more and better language teaching.  “When students are forced to navigate in another language, they become more self-confident and gain a deep-rooted understanding of what it means to think in a way that is other-than-American.”  I’m with him on this, and I hope Catholic University is with him as well.  At Earlham, we expect second language learning of every student (it’s a graduation requirement, and has been for many years.  But we also send most of our students on semester long study abroad, and draw a significant percentage of our students and faculty from outside the United States (we’re approaching 20% with each).

We notice that almost no other institution (is there another?) does all four:  expects second language learning, sends most students on study abroad, draws significant numbers of faculty and students from ab road, and threads global content throughout the curriculum.  If this sounds like a place most institutions should go (an affirmation of high standards), let’s note that this will likely make higher education cost more, not less.  It’s worth doing, but we’re not going to do it on the cheap.

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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