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President Donald R. Eastman III

Op Ed Articles

What Higher Education Is For

Published in the St. Petersburg Times
September 14, 2002, p. A19.

Eckerd College welcomes to the company of scholars the freshmen of the University of North Carolina, who this year begin their studies by reading an interpretive anthology of readings from the Islamic sacred text, the Koran. Since Eckerd College opened in 1960, the core curriculum for all freshmen has included sacred texts of the world religions, and has included readings from the Koran, Mencius (a Confucian text), the Tao Te Ching (Taoism), Buddhism, Hinduism, and the Bible.

Eckerd is certainly not unique among liberal arts colleges in offering coursework about the sacred texts of the religions of the world, though our curriculum does indeed require more encounters with the great works and ideas of the world than those of most colleges and universities. Unlike the curricula of most community colleges and universities, those of liberal arts colleges are focused more on providing an education for a lifetime than on preparation for a first job (or, as the higher education bureaucracy in Tallahassee puts it, in a grimly Orwellian locution, "the workforce").

The resistance in North Carolina to studying the Koran, which extends even into the state legislature, fundamentally misunderstands the original purpose of higher education in America.

The great institutions of higher education in early America, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown and many others, were created by Protestant denominations to educate young persons to be able to know the truth; many of them shared the motto, "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." The method for pursuing such an education was then, as it is now, the study of what Matthew Arnold called "the best that has been thought and said in the world." At that time, "the best" was considered to be the study of the canonic texts of the Hebraic and Hellenic worlds.

As the audience for higher education broadened with the industrial revolution in the 19th century, so too did the curriculum, so that universities included preparation for specific professions - ministry, law, medicine, engineering - in addition to the constant core of the academy, the liberal arts.

Higher education in America is now divided into two distinct kinds of places: Those in which the search for truth, for an educated intellect and imagination, is primary; and those in which preparation for a particular career is primary. While there is much that is healthy about this dual-purpose system of higher education, the vast numerical superiority of the second kind of education, amplified as it so often is by the "beer and circus" entertainment apparatus of college football and basketball, threatens to obscure and overwhelm the original purpose of colleges in America. That purpose was not to develop accountants - as important as they are to contemporary business - but to teach values and value-laden thinking to students who would later become, among other things, accountants. That was the kind of education Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he said that democracy depends upon the education of the governed.

The search for truth is by definition characterized by openness to new and often threatening ideas, by admitting all comers to the debate, by respecting the freedom of speech of all contenders, and by making judgments on the basis of evidence. The curriculum for such an enterprise is arduous, and it can provoke fear in those insecure in their own ability to distinguish sense from nonsense in a complex world. An education built on such a curriculum, however, prepares its students not simply for a job but f or a lifetime.