The limits of a “practical” education

The University’s intellectual tradition trains students to ask the right questions, solve big problems.

By Ajay Ravichandran

Most of the columns I’ve written for the Maroon have dealt with national politics, but preparing to leave the place which has been my home for the past four years has led me to spend some time reflecting on the U of C and its future. Anyone thinking about this topic right now will inevitably consider the ongoing debate over the switch to the Common App, as well as other recent policy changes designed to attract students who want to go to college mainly in order to improve their job prospects. Is the shift away from a tradition of concerning ourselves primarily with the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake—which these moves seem to prefigure—a disturbing betrayal of our core purpose as an institution, or a necessary accommodation to social realities? I certainly can’t hope to survey all of the relevant issues here, but a look back at some of the most valuable features of my own college experience leads me to think that, if the University were to deemphasize disinterested intellectual inquiry at the expense of pre-professional education, something important would be lost

One of the aspects of the education I’ve received at the U of C which stands out to me the most is my sense that, while every school I’ve attended has taught me new facts, only here have I been exposed to new ways of thinking that have altered my understanding of what problems mattered and which questions could be asked. For instance, I used to think that the only important moral question in debates over economic inequality was how to balance the ideal of equality against the need to provide the wealthy and talented with incentives to work. But then I took a political philosophy seminar in which we examined the late G.A. Cohen’s argument that if justice requires a significantly more egalitarian distribution of resources, then people who make that just distribution impossible by refusing to work more than a certain amount unless they receive unequalizing incentive payments are themselves subject to moral criticism. This experience not only exposed me to a specific philosopher’s view about inequality but also enabled me to consider a question that I otherwise couldn’t have even framed.

While many other colleges (and other types of institutions) can doubtless play the same role, I think several of the University’s characteristic features make it uniquely suited to do so. Most obviously, we’re generally evaluated here not just on our ability to assemble facts or apply a problem-solving algorithm, but also on our understanding of the framework of ideas that structures the study of any given subject. Furthermore, the presence of other students who value intellectual inquiry and a university culture that emphasizes its importance facilitates such reflection as well.

Whatever other virtues pre-professional education, or any other form of “practical” education (education aimed at some specific end other than greater understanding), might have, it creates powerful obstacles to shaping students in this way. Because the approach in question is designed to achieve a particular end, institutions which employ it will attach very little (if any) importance to the question of how to think about which ends are worth pursuing; therefore, the sorts of wide-ranging ethical inquiry pursued by many humanists and social scientists will get short shrift. While abstract empirical and mathematical investigations might fare a bit better, few students are likely to develop the inquisitive and intellectually curious mindset they require at a university which places heavy emphasis on the economic benefits of education.

These issues are especially serious because the type of intellectual activity in question is quite difficult (as any U of C student can attest) and conflicts much more sharply with our natural inclinations than even the prudent concern with one’s long-term well-being—a concern which presumably motivates students with pre-professional interests. Therefore, even moderately strong discouragement is enough to dissuade most people from pursuing this type of intellectual inquiry. This suggests that giving equal priority to education for economic success and education for critical reflection is unlikely to work.

But why does the sort of learning I have in mind matter so much? Why should University administrators, who justifiably fear irrelevance in an increasingly consumerist society that attaches little value to intellectual pursuits, fight for it? One important reason is that the development of new modes of thought is among the key forces that drive social improvement. Many of the features of our culture that we most value, from the use of reliable scientific methods to the widespread belief that each person has equal moral worth, emerged not by finding new answers to preexisting questions but by changing the questions we asked. Without a way of teaching at least some people how to do this, it will be much harder to deal with the many serious problems we face. And while it would be silly to expect every educational institution to play this role—pre-professional instruction certainly has its place, as do many other types—it would be just as misguided to prevent one of the universities which plays it most effectively from continuing to do so.

Ajay Ravichandran is a fourth-year in the College majoring in philosophy.