By Eliza Wells
Admit Weekend has come and gone, and with it the various panels, fairs, activities and open houses, all designed to convince the newest batch of freshmen that Stanford is the best place to be — under the pretense that they are helping them make an informed decision. “Why are you here,” they ask, referencing departments or dorms or the university at large. “Why are you here?”
It’s a question worth asking, and not just in the Stanford-specific sense: Why are we at college? What are our goals, both practical and ethical? How should we balance social life, classwork, professional connections, fun classes, skill sets, Stanford’s institutional history, self-care and family?
Over the course of the next four weeks, the Daily’s Philosophy column will be asking these sorts of questions while exploring the nature of education. We hope to probe more deeply into the assumptions around which each of us base our lives here.
So, why are we here, anyways? What is the purpose of a university education?
One common, intuitive answer is that the university prepares us for the workplace. We’re here to gain marketable skills — to learn the content of various subjects and to gain facility with the tools needed to work with them. Once we graduate, we will be capable of doing certain jobs, and the purpose of the university is to make us as capable as possible.
This kind of education increases the productivity of workers, benefitting society, and also increases our chances of earning higher incomes, providing higher-quality lives for ourselves and our families. Conceived in this way, education is key to individual and societal satisfaction. It’s also key to justice — it is vitally important that low-income and other marginalized individuals have opportunities to become high earners and raise the quality of life for themselves and their communities.
But there are, of course, concerns with this view. One is that universities do not, in fact, increase social mobility. A “Mobility Report Card” published last summer examined data from 30 million college students from 1999-2013, showing that the universities most likely to produce top earners (like Stanford, who helped to produce the report) are also the least likely to admit low-income students, and even within universities students often self-segregate by socioeconomic status. Additionally, low-income students are less likely to complete their four-year degrees even when admitted, raising questions about whether universities are failing to support the students they claim to help most.
University choices about whom to admit, whom to hire and whom to include in curriculums often privilege elites, adding to worries that education targeted towards employment can entrench inequalities by continuing the systems in which those inequalities exist. For example, one study of Stanford students in intro-level biology classes showed that women tend to report higher test anxiety than their male peers, and, while women performed better on written work and lab reports, the way the classes were structured focused on exam performances.
This pressure contributes to more women than men dropping out of the pre-med track and related majors, entrenching structural gender inequalities in medicine and the sciences. Universities’ value sets — both in terms of what they value in students and what they teach students to value — can privilege elites, forcing students into traditional molds of achievement and excluding those who refuse to fit.
Another concern — and the other primary explanation for the purpose of a university education — is that mere workplace preparedness actually contributes very little to quality of life. An unexamined life is not worth living, and some argue that employment without artistry and individuality will never allow us to feel fulfilled as human beings. Educational evangelists argue that the purpose of a university education is to teach you how to think broadly and creatively, to contemplate the human condition and to understand yourself and the world around you. The purpose of education is to help people flourish. For philosophers since Plato, this also includes giving students a moral education, teaching them to act ethically and preparing them to be upright citizens.
Just as there are concerns about the first approach to education, there are concerns about the second. Where do problems of justice and social mobility fit in here? The flowering vision of the mind presented by the humanities seems like an ivory-tower privilege open only to those with leisure and disposable income.
A further complication, of course, is what it means to flourish at all. If the greatest good for an individual is to live as an autonomous individual, the classroom, with its carefully chosen curriculum and pre-determined grading standards, does little to encourage autonomy. If the greatest good has something to do with community functioning, then further questions arise about how to incorporate different value sets expressed by families, civic education, religions, etc. As beautiful as it may sound to flourish, it is unclear how the university can facilitate that for all students.
Of course, these two reasons for education are not mutually exclusive. We can argue that we’ll flourish best in jobs that we’re prepared for, or believe that the life of the mind contributes to career success. Most of us probably strike one or another of these balances in our own lives. But it’s worth thinking further about the groundings for these convictions, and about the various places we give to elitism, autonomy or community in our answer to why we’re here.
The conversation about the purpose of education is fundamental to many discussions we’re having on campus right now (most recently this event), including that of the comparative value of STEM and the humanities. It is important to note here that there are two parts to this conversation: The goal of education, and whether various disciplines meet that goal.
Faced with people arguing that the humanities are useless, some argue that the humanities, in fact, are necessary for careers generally and tech specifically. Without the humanities, they ask, where can we find the creativity necessary to innovate in a world of automation, or the communication skills so crucial to interpersonal success? These people are pulling on the first argument, that the purpose of education is to prepare people for the workplace. It’s a fair place to look, since most of their opponents are basing pro-STEM arguments on the career point. But by accepting that purpose, they open themselves up to the problems of elitism and meaning discussed earlier.
Others argue that STEM is insufficient because only the humanities can teach you to flourish — algorithms and formulas neglect the human condition. They blame the spiraling problems of Silicon Valley on a generation unprepared to think ethically, who think that innovation is data mining rather than civic engagement. Again, these arguments are often criticized for their elitism and assumption that flourishing is the same for everyone.
I think it is possible for a university education to do both of these things: for us not to sacrifice the good life for the employed life or vice versa. If that is the case, it is worth thinking about how universities themselves should take responsibility for fulfilling the purpose of education for their students. What is the university’s role as an institution in shaping its students’ lives? It is important to recognize how many factors go into a university; the debate surrounding the purpose of education manifests in our choices of friends and mentors as well. Stay tuned — we’ll cover this next time.
Contact Eliza Wells at eliza22 ‘at’ stanford.edu.