Saturday, February 18, 2012

Can "community," not curriculum, be higher ed's best response to poverty?

It is a given among the policy classes that higher education is essential for economic improvement because people with college degrees earn more money than those without.  This view, while true as far as it goes, turns discussion of the value of higher education in two directions--cost and curriculum. So if a degree can be completed inexpensively, and in a field where there are employment opportunities, higher ed will have done its job by preparing students for economic well-being.

Ross Douthat's recent review of Charles Murray's Coming Apart makes a point that higher education leaders ought to consider in light of our increasing obligation to be engines of economic well-being.  Douthat writes that:

"Even acknowledging all the challenges (globalization, the decline of manufacturing, mass low-skilled immigration) that have beset blue collar America over the last thirty years, it is still the case that if you marry the mother or father of your children, take work when you can find it and take pride in what you do, attend church and participate as much as possible in the life of your community, and strive to conduct yourself with honesty and integrity, you are very likely to not only escape material poverty, but more importantly to find happiness in life."

Traditionally, colleges and universities have concerned themselves with some of the behaviors that Douthat cites above. But that attention has diminished over time, particularly as it has to do with making long-term commitments, finding fulfillment in work, attending church, and foregrounding values like honesty and integrity.  That higher ed should care about these things ought to be obvious from our roots in helping students to become something.  And it should be assumed in higher education's commitment to civic engagement.  But if we needed any additional impulse to favor these behaviors, let it be that they also contribute to economic well-being.  And inasmuch as the programs that attend to these concerns reside in the co-curriculum, then it is the co-curriculum--the site of community-building on most campuses--that deserves as much attention as the curriculum.

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