The Purpose of Education 1 - University Goals

What do modern universities think they're supposed to be doing?

The American educational system is Big Business - Forbes estimates that we spend more than $1 trillion per year on K-16.  For all that, there's less investment in researching new methods of teaching than in any other field of comparable size.

That's why we welcome the many discussions of on-line learning opportunities.  The Internet is taking Andrew Carnegie's dream of having libraries in all communities worldwide.  In times past, a determined child could educate himself in the New York Public Library.  Now, any determined student anywhere in the world can learn pretty much anything without leaving the computer.

It's not clear how a traditional university should react to the wave of on-line learning and it isn't clear what individual parents or students ought to do to best prepare for the future.  In keeping with our Founder's beliefs that education was essential to a functioning democracy, let's explore the purpose of education.  If we don't agree on the goal, it's going to be hard to figure out how to get there much less to agree on means.

There are several strongly-held definitions of education.  Few organizations officially admit to holding any of these views in particular.  We base our descriptions of educational philosophy on what these organizations do, rather than on what they say.

Spreading Knowledge

The view that educational institutions must spread human knowledge is most evident in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) colleges like Stanford, Carnegie-Mellon, and MIT.  These universities set an early example of offering on-line curricula for free because they felt obligated to spread knowledge as widely as they could.  A recent Stanford on-line course had 400,000 students, only a few of whom were enrolled in the university.

Khan Academy and other on-line K-12 teaching systems and the growing availability of on-line scientific journals extend the reach of free education from the earliest years through essentially all human knowledge.

In a sense, this view of education could be compared to missionary efforts.  A missionary dedicates his life to spreading belief in his god; he believes that the glory of his god is worth expending his life, by whatever means seem most effective and suitable.  Obviously, to be effective a missionary must have sufficient income to keep body and soul together, but missionaries are famous for very low standards of living.  Nobody goes into missions to get rich.

MIT and Stanford certainly don't compare to the privations of an African mud hut, and a holy book isn't enough equipment to spread a thorough understanding of, say, particle physics, but the great STEM universities are not noted for posh student lounges or outlandish professorial salaries.  Some professors can supplement their salaries by consulting, others can't or don't, but the university itself doesn't egregiously overpay most of them.

They spend vast sums on facilities, yes - but on scientific facilities for getting, increasing, and spreading human knowledge.  Stanford or MIT don't view the 400,000 nonpaying online students as a loss to their exchequer; they glory in a new and more efficient way of communicating values that are important to them, just as televangelists and radio preachers welcomed the arrive of a new way to reach the lost or inflame jihad as the case may be.

The Nonprofit Myth

Most colleges of all sorts are heavily invested in shaking graduates down for the alumni fund, particularly the Ivy League.  These contributions are tax-free because colleges are defined as nonprofit.

This is pure fiction.  Ivy league colleges such as Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and the major STEM universities are so highly nonprofitable that they're worth billions.  You and I should be nonprofitable like that!

Their accumulated wealth makes it possible to set up on-line systems to spread their accumulated knowledge yet further.  Some of their online students may be grateful enough to contribute.  Even if the average contribution goes down, they may make it up in volume.

However, while we see that the STEM institutions are willing and eager to get their teaching out to a wider audience, institutions with a liberal arts or professional emphasis are much more hesitant.  You can study MIT math, physics, and engineering online for free; you can't do the same with Harvard Law.

Signaling Social Status

Status was once the major purpose of education.  Before widespread popular education, learning foreign or classical languages indicated that you were a member of the elite and not a mere peasant.  This served the same function as wearing a powdered wig, carrying a sword or cane, or wearing a top hat.  When the Apostle Paul was rescued from a mob, the fact that he could speak Greek convinced the soldiers that he was a man of substance who had to be treated carefully (Acts 21:37).

Now that education is far more widely available than in the past, a college degree isn't the mark of being in the in-crowd as much as it was.  It's long been advertised that a college degree is the ticket to economic security, and for most of the existence of college degrees, it was.  Today's graduates, alas, are finding that "when everyone is special, nobody is" - a modern college degree qualifies you to work at McDonald's and not necessarily much more.

Graduates of elite institutions aren't entirely unaffected; however, a Harvard Law degree is still much more likely to lead to a cushy job than one from a community college.  That's the reason parents put themselves in hock to pay the astronomical tuition for their offspring, even in hard times.  If everybody could go to Harvard, this social cachet would be lost, so Harvard isn't entirely enthusiastic about spreading its knowledge widely.

MIT and other STEM degrees are highly useful to society and can be lucrative, but aren't the same signifier of social status.  There's nothing to be gained from keeping STEM knowledge scarce; if anything, letting people all around the world learn from MIT will increase its reputation as a place where useful knowledge can be obtained.  This also increases the personal renown of its professors and their consulting fees.  Giving knowledge away free is a form of marketing if you're in the useful-knowledge business, whereas keeping it restricted is more beneficial if you're engaged in pursuits that are useful only because of governmental force such as lawyers.

It's pretty clear that while both MIT and Harvard are elite colleges, the fundamental views of these institutions to knowledge and education are profoundly different.  In the next article in this series, we'll explore some reasons for their differences and how these viewpoints work out in practice.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments

The purpose of education depends on the purpose of the human and his mind. Free men want to know what they exist for, and that is where the term "liberal" education came from. Check into Mortimer Adler's "Great Books" program.

February 11, 2016 3:17 AM

"Status was once the major purpose of education. Before widespread popular education, learning foreign or classical languages indicated that you were a member of the elite and not a mere peasant. This served the same function as wearing a powdered wig, carrying a sword or cane, or wearing a top hat."

Malarkey! The function of classical education was and is to open up new worlds of beauty and intellect, to steep the mind in the finest thought that has been tested through the ages.

May 15, 2018 7:50 AM

That was indeed what the sales brochure said, but if you read some of the writings of many who sent through the system, you'll find that they were party animals to roughly the same degree as today's collegians.

As for the value of such an education, you are TOTALLY CORRECT. However, our current lefty college elites are diluting the worthwhile ideas of the past with worthless degrees such as XX studies. They're destroying the value of what used to be called a liberal education.

May 16, 2018 5:51 PM
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