There remains a fundamental tension in the American approach to education between the “utilitarian” model and the “liberal arts” model. It has been the case from the push toward higher education in the mid-nineteenth century with the importation of German models of learning. This tension is grounded in two competing impulses of American life: a pragmatic spirit and a democratic populism.
The pragmatic spirit in America drove the industrial revolution during the Gilded Age and Progressive Eras (1865-1920). It led to the creation of institutes whose primary task was to advance technological aptitude and discovery. These “institutes of technology” the most famous of which is MIT, began in the late nineteen century and have dotted the landscape ever since.
Democratic populism, on the other hand, was less about technological advance and more about forming the soul of individuals and thus the soul of a nation. Americans took to heart Matthew Arnold’s admonition that a democracy must find a unifying principle beyond the monarch. This unifying principle would be a culture–a national identity grounded in common values–that shaped the individuals within it. While pluralism always questions what is common, democratic populism, at its best, pulled the nation back to the original ideals of “we hold these truths.” With its focus on exploring the ultimate ends of human existence, the liberal arts model aimed at the moral formation of students.
We need to acknowledge the tensions between these models and also the way in which each model conceives the role of the faculty member.
From the beginning, technological aptitude to serve immediate ends and moral formation to serve ultimate ends have been in competition with one another, and they still are.
The former views education in terms of job creation and economic advancement whereas the latter views education in terms of culture formation and the moral progress of society. It is overly simplistic to see this as opposition between colleges of engineering, nursing, and the sciences vs. schools of law, government, religion, and the arts, and yet these different areas can become battle grounds.
This means that the competition between technological aptitude and moral formation is not over research per se, but what kinds of research receive value and, just as importantly, the definition of a “great” faculty member.
When you add the quest to educate the entire populace to these competing models, the tension between them can reach a breaking point. What skills are necessary for the twenty-first century? Many politicians will instinctively gravitate toward a utilitarian model in answering this question and talk about job skills. At the same time, the effort at the national level to encourage character education and the further encroachment of counseling in schools leans toward a liberal arts model.
So, how do these models understand the task of the faculty member in relation to the task of education?
Utility and the Technocrat
The utilitarian model is not simply focused on more immediate ends as part of the task of education. Technology bleeds into the way education is done in the first place.
In a utilitarian model education tends to be conceived more in terms of an assembly line the purpose of which is to produce a product, the graduate, who can then successfully negotiate a marketplace. Thus industry drives education from the outset in terms of the form this education takes as well as the goals toward which it moves.
One can see this at work in the role of the lecture in the classroom. Today it is mainly viewed as an outdated form of educating because students are passive learners rather than active learners.
The problem is that when the lecture was first introduced to the U.S. in the mid-nineteenth century it was not designed to be a passive experience. The point was for the scholar-teacher to utilize the lecture as a way of fusing her creativity with her students’ creativity. The lecture was designed to be a meeting of the minds as it were.
Under the weight of the cost to educate massive numbers of students, the lecture became a cost-saving mechanism as it was increasingly used to deliver a product (the faculty member’s knowledge) to larger and larger numbers of students. Soon lectures came to be used in lecture halls as a means of disseminating information to hundreds of students at once (even thousands on some campuses). At this stage, the lecture ceases to be a meeting of the minds and becomes a performance designed to convey basic information in an entertaining way.
One can see the movement toward MOOCs in online education as another advance in the utilitarian model of education. Technology is employed in the hopes of finally finding that holy grail of the utilitarian model: teaching job skills to massive numbers at low cost.
In this model, the faculty member is really a technocrat by which I mean an “expert,” who transmits expertise to the masses. The task of the faculty member is to help students achieve certification in a particular area. The technocrat breeds proficient students who demonstrate competence by “passing” the requisite courses as part of a certification process.
Recently a friend I know had to take an online course in CPR as part of her job training. She completed the course and received the information, but left doubtful as to whether she could actually perform CPR as a result. Yet, she had been “certified” to do so by receiving the information in a technological medium–the teacher as technocrat.
Formation and the Midwife
Like the utilitarian model, the liberal-arts model also impacts the form and the goals of education. It is the model to which the term humanism was connected, not in the sense of any particular theology or philosophy, but in the basic sense of have the goal of forming the human person by exploring the ultimate purpose of human beings–socially, morally, philosophically, politically, theologically.
In this model, education is about building relationships that become the conduits through which knowledge is passed from teacher to student. The graduate is a person satiated with the knowledge of the past who goes forth newly weaned from the breasts of her nourishing mother (alma mater). The form of this education must be the seminar, the small class, the intimate setting in which the student becomes an apprentice.
It was in the intimacy of the classroom that the “lecture” was to take on its proper role. A lecture’s success was premised upon the relational links already established between the scholar and the students, the master and the apprentices. Moreover, educational programs were formed around students remaining with a group of faculty, not following a pre-designed set of courses.
The faculty member is the midwife who helps knowledge come forth from the minds of students through lectures, discussions of seminal texts, and casual conversations that connect learning to life. One can see the ongoing relevance of this model in the increasing popularity of coaching/mentoring in relation to leadership.
Is it even possible to “coach” hundreds of people at once when the relationship is strictly notional, the transmission of knowledge from one mind to another?
Online education under this model looks less like a MOOC and more like a small group that utilizes FB and other forms of social media to create the relational networks necessary for the formation of the student. Of course, most faculty will tell you that this takes a lot of work. It is a heavy investment because the public/private distinction gets blurred in an online context in which students expect faculty to be available to respond to emails and posts during all hours.
The challenge has always been how to reconcile these approaches and I see no silver bullet in the coming online education revolution. It will simply take the debate into another arena rather than resolve it. The liberal-arts model is very costly because it requires smaller, more intimate settings, which goes against mass education. It has also taken a beating in the past thirty years because the role in which different ideologies have come to play in the formation of students in concert with secularism. The utilitarian model, however, cannot form students as democratic citizens because of it’s focus on labor skills.