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Universities Aren’t Just Economic Tools

In his budget speech Monday at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, President Obama continued to beat the drum for the bold higher education policy proposals that he announced in his recent State of the Union address and a subsequent speech at the University of Michigan.

A lot of people are talking about the specific proposals, but almost nobody is talking about the overarching rhetoric in which he wrapped them.

In all three speeches, the president described higher education as "an economic imperative." While he has some worthy goals, such as increasing access to higher education, a purely economic argument for the importance of universities carries the hidden danger of impoverishing our national discourse on higher education and impeding progress toward the very aims he wants to reach.

Obama has proclaimed that we have the world's best colleges and universities, and that sparking creativity and imagination is America's special prowess. Yet his rhetoric of universities as economic tools puts those strengths at risk.

The American university has a long tradition of insulation from markets and partisan politics precisely because that insulation fosters an institution where faculty and students can study creative hypotheses, explore great truths and ask the big questions about what makes a good life, free from the compulsion of immediate utility. As a result, the university has had a distinctive culture that nourishes curiosity and encourages taking the long view, the very conditions that encourage the innovation Obama hopes for.

In recent years, however, the rising notion that universities should be economic tools has changed their culture, constraining some faculty research agendas by limiting work considered unpopular or economically irrelevant.

If Obama's rhetoric carries the day, it will further erode the university's special character, squelch curiosity and pressure universities to take the short view. Many of our wisest business leaders have lamented how the demand for profits inhibits them from long-term thinking — all the more reason we must preserve universities' capacity to tackle big questions with the long perspective of past and the future.

We can look back to other moments in American history for better examples of how to frame the public purpose of universities. As totalitarianism reached its zenith in Europe in the early 1940s, American leaders developed a national discourse about how universities might strengthen democracy.

Far from making the university a tool for political indoctrination, the wisest members of this movement asserted that universities strengthened democracy by providing liberal arts education. They believed democracy was not an ultimate end but a means to the good life because it allowed the individual to seek truth through free speech and inquiry. They wanted college to help students interpret their beliefs in historical, philosophical and global perspective — the latter through new courses on non-Western cultures, then relatively rare in American universities.

Or consider another speech at the University of Michigan, when John F. Kennedy first publicly voiced the ideas that led to the Peace Corps during his 1960 presidential campaign. Kennedy suggested that students think about how they could use their studies to serve others around the world.

Obama, by contrast, told students they were at Michigan to get skills and training for building their personal finances and the American economy. He gave no indication that a student might be at the university to be formed as a person, as a thinker and communicator — and as a global citizen.

Obama's narrow, short-sighted rhetoric for American higher education puts our universities in peril. We must wake up to the possibility that universities might be living on borrowed moral capital and begin framing higher education policy in ways consistent with our universities' noble traditions, before it is too late.

Ethan Schrum is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. He is writing a book on the history of American research universities after World War II. Contact him at eschrum@virginia.eduThis column first appeared in the Commentary section of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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