Another reflection of the difficult economic times we face is the reinvigorated debate about the fundamental purpose of higher education. The debate, which is both internal and external, frequently takes the following line. On one side are those who argue that higher education’s primary goal is to provide students with the knowledge, critical thinking capabilities, and communication skills to empower them to be informed and engaged citizens. The other side advances the claim that, especially in the current economic climate, the primary goal of higher education should be to prepare people to be productive participants in the economy. Simplistically, do colleges and universities exist to prepare students for jobs, or for some other purpose? That’s a fair enough question, one that is certainly on the minds of many students and parents, and a question that clearly can be framed or recast in many complex and nuanced ways.
For land-grant universities like the University of Rhode Island, the answer is, I believe, that our purpose has always been to prepare our students both to be good citizens and productive economic contributors. The Morrill Act of 1862 states: “…each State which may take and claim the benefit of this act, to the endowment, support, and maintenance, of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life (emphasis mine).” I think the intent is clear – universities that were to be designated as “land-grant” institutions were to educate in order to produce citizens, drawn from the working and middle classes, to be productively engaged in the nation’s economy. The emphasis on “agriculture and the mechanic arts” is important to note: these were the sectors of the economy where the majority of Americans worked.
The University of Rhode Island is charged, as are all land-grant institutions, with providing both “liberal and practical education” to our students. This clause is a cogent example of the highly innovative vision for public higher education laid out in the Morrill Act. It is every bit as relevant in the 21st century as it was in 1862. But the importance of providing both liberal and practical education has perhaps never been more evident. More so than at any time in our past, the modern university’s role is to prepare students for jobs and entire careers that do not yet exist. To succeed we must continually rethink and redesign our academic programs to insure that the content and techniques we teach are as up to date as possible. We must also insure that every student is provided multiple opportunities to acquire the essential reasoning, communication, quantitative, language, social/cultural, and learning skills that are indispensable for success in the global economy.
America certainly needs more students to major in disciplines associated with science, engineering, and technology. At the same time we need to remember that many of our graduates build very successful careers based on majors in the social sciences, the humanities, and the arts. I am convinced, regardless of their programs of study, that engaging students in research, scholarship, and creative work will simultaneously enhance their undergraduate education and prepare them uniquely well for “the several pursuits and professions in life.” Students need to move outside of standard learning environments, whether it involves physical or virtual classrooms, and into research laboratories, field sites, studios, companies and non-profit organizations, or many other environments where they can be confronted with problems that have not been previously solved, or asked to create something new. In my judgment, the University of Rhode Island and America’s other land-grant research universities should seek to provide such learning opportunities to all of our undergraduates. By doing so we will not only prepare them for jobs, we will prepare them to create new jobs.