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Higher Education: Two Perspectives

Higher Education: Two Perspectives

In April I’m giving a talk on higher education in Ukraine at the invitation of the State Department. I haven’t finished it yet, but I know my hosts hope I’ll talk about some of the strengths of American higher education that might help Ukrainian counterparts think about reform in a situation that apparently has not changed too much from Soviet days. So I’m encouraged to think about what American examples can contribute toward instilling critical thinking and a more global perspective, while also talking about roles American universities play in the wider community.

I can certainly think of some interesting things to point out. I’m always a bit cautious about too much self-praise, both because it risks slighting some harsher realities — we don’t, for example, do as well with critical thinking as we’d like to — and because, in terms of tactics, it can antagonize an audience appropriately skeptical about American bombast. So I’ll be careful and accurate, emphasizing some shared problems and certainly possibilities of collaboration around common goals.

But as I was thinking about the talk, and State Department encouragement, I was also amused by the contrast with some of the commonplaces of current internal American discourse — about how higher education must be substantially revamped, that it’s outdated, no longer doing the job, complacent and defensive.

It’s obviously logically possible for an institution to be praiseworthy against foreign example, but still deficient by more demanding domestic criteria. But in fact, there’s no small tension between the continued high standing of American universities abroad and the rising tide of domestic discontent. It’s hard to have it both ways.

This is not to say that some of the domestic commentary is off the mark. We do need to work harder on problems like retention, where what was once acceptable no longer measures up. We do need to redouble efforts to realize some of our on-paper goals, as with critical thinking.

But it’s also probable that some of the current unease with higher education results from economic pressures and the even longer-term erosion of state budgets, which make so many people wish that we could find magic ways to deliver quality without the attendant cost (or maybe to diminish quality in favor of lower cost, without explicitly saying so). There are exigencies that may force change, but they don’t all relate to intrinsic deficiencies in higher ed itself.

Which means, finally, that we do need to be careful about throwing the baby out with the bath water. It’s easy for higher education spokespeople to sound whiny and defensive, but the probability is that we do actually have a pretty good product, which would be a shame to damage unduly. Else why can we be asked, with all due tact and modesty, to provide examples for others — by agencies of the same government that often seem eager to take us to task. The reality, at the least, is more complex than some of the gloomiest assessments suggest.