Tough questions for higher education

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In 2008 and 2009, the John L. and Sue Ann Weinberg Foundation sponsored a series of seminars on higher education. Led by Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, the former dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the panel of speakers represented some of the most respected higher education experts in the country.

The group noticed a theme emerging in their sessions: Almost every presenter felt Americans were loosing sight of the core values of higher education in pursuit of its economic benefits.

This month Lagemann, along with co-editor Harry Lewis, are releasing a book based on this quandary, featuring essays by a number of presenters from the Weinberg panel: “What Is College For? The Public Purpose of Higher Education.”

“I feel we’re suffering from a national myopia over a very limited kind of success when it comes to higher education. We seem to be obsessed with the economic impact,” says Lewis, a professor at Harvard and the author of numerous other books, including “Excellence Without a Soul: Does Liberal Arts Education Have a Future?” “I think the education world has to take some responsibility for allowing this myopia to develop without fostering a discussion about how we’re going to preserve education for the long haul.” 

But “What Is College For?” is a hopeful critique. In each of its six chapters, the authors seek to inspire readers to ask more of institutions and students alike.

“Right now there’s a lot being written about the failures of higher education. This volume is not designed to say that higher education is a failure or success,” says Lewis. “We’re trying to stimulate a discussion about what its purposes are, so you can have a reasonable conversation. There isn’t much value in that argument if you can’t agree on the basic purpose of education.” 


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