Skip to content

On Higher Education in the 21st Century:
What Constitutes an Educated Person?


Recently, I was called upon to reflect upon the purpose of higher education in the twenty-first century. But as I quickly discovered, the subject, one upon which we daily pronounce, may be the most complex... as often and well witnessed by our champion, Senator Judith Zaffirini.

As Senator Zaffirini, an expert communicator, has noted, higher education is replete with imprecision, confusion, and jargon… our worst enemies. As Mr. Bush knew and Mr. Kerry seemed to miss, in our society, nuance is muddle. Our language and our thinking must be sharpened.

First, and among those challenges which we identify and understand, perhaps none has gained more attention than the ascendancy of the corporate model. Presidents are CEOs, faculty free agents, students consumers, and the market drives all. The corporate model has much to teach higher education, and we are listening, intently.

Second, we all recognize that technology must inform and support all our efforts in the academy. We as teachers have yet to bring the marvels of technology into close alignment with pedagogy, but this is universally acknowledged to be important.

Third, yes, the world is flat, meaning imminent, and in this flat world, we must be proficient in more than one language. Europeans have been living this mandate for at least a millennium. We have much ground left to cover.
Fourth, and related to the first two, our students need a global experience as a part of their education. Technology helps provide a real-time experience of international exchange in our classrooms.

Fifth, our attainments as a nation in the teaching and learning of math and science are dismal. Data from every side shows this without question. The problem can only be addressed by looking first at teaching and learning in the first twelve years of education, and how these curricula and those outcomes fail to prepare students for further study. These issues are extremely important and will be truly frightening should they not be recognized and addressed.

Finally, there are the anecdotal cases, the caricature of higher education we occasionally hear from the business sector: “You produce English majors who can’t do anything.” This simply isn’t true. Our students increasingly want a course of study that prepares them for a career, with courses and disciplines combined in interesting new ways: health care and business, athletic management and business, public administration and education, business and law.

In sum, we can quickly identify six areas of universal concern and universal discussion: pervasive corporate language and thinking in our colleges and universities, technology, proficiency in another language, international experience, improved outcomes in math and science learning, and skills necessary for realworld work.

Higher education carries a dual purpose, a bifurcated mission to frame a student’s study. We may state it in various ways, but put simply, we say that our job is to prepare students for a productive career and to prepare students for “life.” This is not a false distinction. But the objective sense of the first and the subjective dimensions of the second, suggest a dichotomy we cannot easily resolve.

Accountability, that most powerful of all words today, both frames our thinking and ensures our failure if we seek a clear and un-nuanced answer. Accountability asks: “What do you want students to learn?” What are the outcomes you seek?” We are told: “Don’t tell me your students learn…show me, objectively, and comparatively between those learning more and those learning less.”

Our second experience of accountability leads us to the questions of life itself. Have I done this right? Was it worth it? Am I happy? Were my choices wise? What helped me most in my life, career, relationships and dreams? Where do we find answers that provide guidance, comfort, joy? This is an intensely private accountability, and the stakes far higher.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, a favored piece of high school literature, offers an excellent example of how contrary forms of assessment complicate our grasp and articulation of education.

On the first assessment, the objective, students can be tested for knowledge of content and compose essays to engage the themes the work explores. But the second assessment is far deeper: How can we determine if, later in life when confronted with harsh hypocrisy or cowardice, a memory of Arthur Dimmesdale might lead to a course of action… or that a future deep, inner strength might spring from a interior recollection of Hester Prynne?

If we could demonstrate that memory of The Scarlet Letter provides courage or strength, we would have powerful evidence that literature has a serious role in answering our deepest needs. Could we ever show that Hawthorne, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson or any other writer plays a significant role in altering and improving lives? Or can some outcomes simply not be precisely assessed?

Dispositions of the mind and heart notoriously resist attempts to calibrate and quantify. Most students, reflecting upon teachers they most remember, choose a high school English teacher.

This is not surprising, for in that teacher’s class, questions of life, love, suffering and integrity inevitably emerge under literature’s study.

So, what constitutes an educated person? Let us consider several practical guidelines:

  1. Defining the purpose of education is like defining the purpose of a meeting. Consider “back-timing.” One begins by determining where one wants to be at the end, then backs up, activating strategies to reach the desired end.
  2. Outcomes and strategies must cohere, in a curriculum determined by the endpoint: university study. Elementary schools do not guide formation of high school curricula; high schools do not lead universities. We must constantly design by moving from end backwards. This is especially important for math and science teaching and learning.
  3. Every lesson a student encounters between pre-kindergarten and high school must inculcate outcomes of clear reading, writing, and speaking, and the ability to develop and support an idea with evidence.

The implications of the above are wide. So wide, in fact, that we cannot insist upon a choice, a preference for training in either arts or humanities, or training for professions. We must have both. Happily the concept of CORE knowledge and curriculum retains both ends. And only what used to be proudly called a “liberal education” can resolve the dichotomy of career or life, because it accommodates seemingly antithetical ends.

In The New York Review of Books, Andrew Delbanco quotes Anthony Kronman, former Yale Law School, as defining the goal of a liberal education as “expansion of a student’s powers of sympathetic imagination through appreciation of views, moods, dispositions, and experiences other than his or her own.”

Sympathetic imagination. Here, “sympathetic” does not refer to a disposition of pity, but rather understanding. Understanding requires knowledge, study, tolerance.

Having reflected for some months on these inspiring words, I now offer them to you as the best guide to our work in higher education. Can you think of any outcome, objective or subjective, practical or affective, that a “sympathetic imagination,” properly cultivated, would not nurture and embrace, endure and replace?


Ray M. Keck III

Professor of Spanish
Texas A&M International University