Blog Post

Higher education: Should it remain traditional or change for the economic climate

Higher education: Should it remain traditional or change for the economic climate

I recently started delving into the curriculum debate. What has education, in this context college, been used for and why is it now a debate on the national level?

To set the stage:

The university has been a time-honored traditional role of an institution where free and open thought can be fostered, shared, and where learning should be undertaken for learning’s sake. Skills and rigid research should be saved for skill-based occupations outside the learned walls of the ivory towers of academia. In the economic atmosphere present today is this a responsible course of action?

The debate falls into two camps; one is that the US higher education system should uphold its standards as a learning institution for the reaping of knowledge in an unstructured format. The second camp upholds that the cost of education, the time spent, and the economic repercussions of a society of unemployed college graduates demands that the role of the university change to a more goal based (finding a job) application. The debate obviously hits close to home for many and therefore has many emotional landmines attached to it.

So what is the traditional view of the university?

As John H. Newman eloquently stated in his essay The Idea of a University. I. What Is a University?,  that, “[the University] is the place to which a thousand schools make contributions; in which the intellect may safely range and speculate, sure to find its equal in some antagonist activity, and its judge in the tribunal of truth. It is a place where inquiry is pushed forward, and discoveries verified and perfected, and rashness rendered innocuous, and error exposed, by the collision of mind with mind, and knowledge with knowledge. It is the place where the professor becomes eloquent, and is a missionary and a preacher, displaying his science in its most complete and most winning form, pouring it forth with the zeal of enthusiasm, and lighting up his own love of it in the breasts of his hearers. It is the place where the catechist makes good his ground as he goes, treading in the truth day by day into the ready memory, and wedging and tightening it into the expanding reason. It is a place which wins the admiration of the young by its celebrity, kindles the affections of the middle—aged by its beauty, and rivets the fidelity of the old by its associations. It is a seat of wisdom, a light of the world, a minister of the faith, an Alma Mater of the rising generation. It is this and a great deal more…” (Newman, 1907).

This text was written over one hundred years ago and yet it remains the poster sentiment of higher education institutions. The debate, however, does not revolve around the definition of what higher educationis, rather, it is about what it should then be used for. The economic crisis that has gripped the world has apparently instigated reform in higher education outside the US. Where once the university mirrored Newman's description the university outside the US is now reported to be more focused on cultivating a particular skill set for a particular job. The US however reports that our universities are trying to remain the pure learning institutions of old. Obviously both of these statements are not absolutes; however, they are the majority. (Faust, 2010).

Taking a look at the slogans for major universities (I will not mention specifics in light of respect) many tout their ability to educate students for a successful career and to be better prepared to get a job in the market. Action words abound promising an education where the probability of a job is high at the end of the student’s studies. Does this speak to the creed of learning for only learning’s sake? Or does it speak to a more economically minded curriculum?

An description of the issue is summarized by a post by Harvard University's Drew Faust in 2010 where he indicates that "when we define higher education's role principally as driving economic development and solving society's most urgent problems, we risk losing sight of broader questions, of the kinds of inquiry that enable the critical stance, that build the humane perspective, that foster the restless skepticism and unbounded curiosity from which our profoundest understandings so often emerge. Too narrow a focus on the present can come at the expense of the past and future, of the long view that has always been higher learning's special concern. How can we create minds capable of innovation if they are unable to imagine a world different from the one in which we live now?...At the heart of the liberal arts and fundamental to the humanities—and indeed central to much of scientific thought—is the capacity for interpretation, for making meaning and making sense out of the world around us. We are all bombarded with information. That is a defining aspect of the new global knowledge economy and the digital platforms on which it rests. American students spend almost every waking hour attached to some information-generating device—a cell phone, an iPhone, a BlackBerry, an iPad. They are tweeting or googling or instant messaging or e-mailing. What are they meant to do with all this information? How do they digest and evaluate it? If we are to depend on a knowledge economy, how are we to understand what is actually knowledge—or, we might say, signal—as contrasted with what is mere information—what we would call noise?” Faust goes on to say that in the face of these concerns it is the duty of schools to not bow to the fear and remain open to learning for learning’s sake.

What is the reinvention stance?

The job of the University seems to have always been, and remains, solidly as an institution for education, which would include education on future opportunities, but it is up to the student to utilize the opportunities given at the university to their own job needs. Or is it? Perhaps the question to ask is how to create the awareness in students that there are opportunities of specific skill inclusion in higher education? That as a student they must forge a path to a certain job if they so choose.

I posed this question to a librarian meetup group of mine and received some of the following answers (name withheld for privacy). The majority of the commenters are (mostly) graduated MLIS folks who now have a job or are looking:

Commenter 1: Most, if not all, of what I do today in the field today, I did NOT learn in school. I taught myself the skills I needed to be dynamic and up-to-date. Which leads to another problem with library schools: they don't really offer continuing education courses. Instead, grads are expected to piece-together their post MLIS learning.

Commenter 2: As a former law library assistant (non-MLS) with 14 years experience, and, who took some library school classes, I agree the problem isn't too many library school students and too few jobs, but the profession overstates the value of the MLS/MLIS degree (it's not challenging enough). Librarians do not need the extensive and complex knowledge and internship required of doctors and lawyers. This is one reason why so many non-library employers hire paraprofessionals for "library jobs" and libraries now depend on paraprofessionals to handle jobs that once were reserved for degreed librarians.. Perhaps librarianship should restructure itself to consist of three levels; a paraprofessional support program, a more comprehensive bachelors program and a higher, post-graduate level, more focused on informational technology and research processes than is now required of current MLS.

Commenter #3: the thing is these graduates (if they're lucky), are coming in to a market that consists of people who've had their position for YEARS, without the formal education. perhaps, if library schools promoted more "ground work" as a way of networking, the job placement wouldn't be so grim. just a thought.

Commenter #4: My school did a terrific job and is one of the information programs stressing non-traditional jobs. It is on us as individuals to think outside the box and gain these skills. Also yes- without the MLIS you are limited in upward mobility at a job

Commenter #5: it's true that librarians may not need the same level of interning and training as doctors and lawyers... or do they? In any given field, think how many different interfaces, software, hardware, and passwords it takes to get work done. It is currently assumed and expected that everyone, regardless of learning disabilities, language barriers, etc., will somehow be able to keep up with both job attributes AND with changing technology on their own.
Librarians, once revered for organizational skills, are not being trained trained to look at the bigger picture. Consider Electronic Medical Records (EMR), which are currently being created without regard for patient/doctors' needs. The result is that doctors can't find the information they need easily and patients are overwhelmed with having to learn a different interface for each doctor or hospital visit. There is no standard format to make information accessible, retrievable, etc. Print materials used to be like that before DDC or LC, right? And, that's just thinking about medical records, not banking, educational, etc.
I'm glad there are some MLIS programs that stress non-traditional jobs, however, the librarian profession needs to be revamped. Revamping library schools would be the obvious place to start, I think. I'm shocked and horrified that library Schools don't FORCE students to take the tech classes they need to become future library leaders!

What I find interesting is that each commenter (ad this is not the exhaustive list) stated that they feel in some way they didn’t get what they needed from their education. My overarching question is are the universities to blame or is it the students who should be held accountable?

My intuition tells me that the students may not be taking advantage of classes that could make them more marketable, or there just are not enough jobs out there for the amount of people graduating with these degrees.

There are many universities out there that are now changing to accommodate the skills based on the “economic need” their students are asking for, however, the main question I would ask is this: where should the change occur? Create awareness with students or change the institution itself?  

What are your thoughts?


Sources are:;;! image courtesy of



No comments