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What's happened to 'higher' education?

We've traded the foundations of elevated thought for the allure of scientific progress.

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If the term "higher education" is to be distinguished from other forms of learning or training, surely the distinguishing feature cannot simply be the number of years students have devoted to the cultivation of an ability. Were that the case, the longer one worked at the grinding wheel or in the paint shop, the higher one's education would be.

No, what the term refers to is the study of things that are themselves higher; higher in the order of abstraction, higher in that plane of thought and of action on which the examined life is lived. Understood in these terms, higher education found itself a century and a half ago on a collision course with what the general public was equally pleased to call "the real world," the world of commerce, careers, and popular estimations of success.

The collision finally occurred on Oct. 4, 1957, when the Western democracies awakened to the news that the Soviet Union had launched the satellite Sputnik. This event, more than any other in recent times, seemed to vindicate criticisms that had been directed at colleges and universities for decades, namely, that the prevailing curriculum of study, except for the parts that were expressly preprofessional, were irrelevant to life, indifferent to the real needs of society, out of step with the modern world, and plagued by the perspective of the prep school headmaster.


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