One education, many purposes

“What is the purpose of a college education: is it about developing occupational skills or acquiring knowledge?”

My questioner was a journalist who has covered higher education in the United States for more than two decades. And no, I don’t think he genuinely believed the answer had to be one or the other. Rather, his question reflected the false choice that is so prevalent in public discourse about undergraduate education.

President Barack Obama, among others, champions the idea that every U.S. citizen needs a post-secondary education to prosper and to help keep America strong. In this view, colleges and universities must organize the curriculum around marketable job skills sought by employers. In the current economic climate, in which joblessness continues at painfully high rates, this idea has an obvious attraction.

And yet we know there is more to a college education.

This integrated and thoughtful approach to education—called the “Career Curriculum”— assists students in discovering paths that follow their intellectual interests and lead to satisfying careers.

In January, I was one of 10 college presidents invited to participate—along with representatives from a number of education foundations and some K–12 education leaders, as well as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to the president—in a one-day White House conference on higher education’s role in promoting a healthy democracy. Along with a report on the subject, the event was intended to “spark a national conversation and call to action about how institutions of higher learning can embrace and act on their long-standing mission to educate students for informed, engaged citizenship. …”

This is important work, too.

For some reason, when we talk about such goals in debates over public policy, we tend to talk about each objective in isolation, conveying the idea that our focus must be one or the other. A high-quality liberal arts education addresses both needs—legitimate concerns for the public good—through rigorous study that develops the individual’s intellectual capabilities, as well as the capacity to create connections across disciplinary boundaries. It is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, but with the understanding that the effort develops the skills required for professional success, civic leadership and personal satisfaction.

Wheaton exemplifies the power of this approach, through its Connections curriculum, its co-curricular programs, and the accomplishments of our students and alumnae/i.

Consider the Filene Center for Academic Advising and Career Services. By design, the center helps students connect their academic plans with internships, jobs and other learning experiences. This integrated and thoughtful approach to education—called the “Career Curriculum”— assists students in discovering paths that follow their intellectual interests and lead to satisfying careers. The proof lies in the success of Wheaton alums in every field imaginable—from science, finance and business to the performing arts and the emerging field of digital media.

The values of active citizenship are built into the Wheaton experience, too. It is implicit in the freedom and responsibility that students share in managing the life of the campus. That spirit is woven into our athletics program, in which many of our intercollegiate scholar-athletes work as teams to benefit the community. In fact, the National Association of Division III Athletic Administrators recognized our sports teams for their commitment to community service during the group’s annual national conference.

And the Office of Service, Spirituality and Social Responsibility facilitates dozens of projects every semester, including helping to organize what has become an annual alternative break trip to help rebuild New Orleans. The college’s partner, Rebuilding Together: New Orleans, recently recognized the work of our students on their website.

“Wheaton has sent over 80 volunteers, worked 2,600 hours, and has helped us on three different homes. In addition, Wheaton sent students to work on the same house two years in a row, a testament to Wheaton’s commitment to helping us bring homeowners back.”

Examples abound. Taken together, they illustrate the quality, value and worth of a Wheaton education. The source of that power lies in our commitment to liberal arts study, and our unshakable belief that the pursuit of knowledge is a worthwhile endeavor in its own right. That idea is inscribed over the entrance to our library: “That they may have life and may have it abundantly.” At its core, that is the purpose of a Wheaton education.