Two Visions of Higher Education: Utopia U & Utility U

Two Visions of Higher Education: Utopia U & Utility U

September 15, 2019 0 By Ronny Jaskolski


Hello, I’m Dr. Anadale and I teach philosophy
at Mount Saint Mary’s University and Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Our text today is “What Is the Point of
College?” an essay by Kwame Anthony Appiah, a professor of philosophy at New York University, and
it appears in the September, 13th 2015 edition of the New York Times Magazine. In this essay Appiah sketches out two rival
visions for higher education in America today, which he quite cleverly calls “Utility U”
and “Utopia U.” The former is focused upon developing skills
that are useful in the job market, useful to graduates, to employers, and to society
in general. This is the classic focus upon return on investment
in terms of skills. The latter, Utopia U., is focused upon old-fashioned
soul building, the liberal arts classically conceived, and if it has an external goal
at all it’s something vague like “the pursuit of happiness.” Appiah observes that these two models give
us conflicting models for, conflicting metrics for judging the success of an education. And he explores some of the implications of
this for questions of tenured faculty and adjuncts, and for the assessment of student learning. In another clever turn of phrase he says that
while Utility U. focuses upon “value,” value for the customer, Utopia U. focuses
upon “values,” upon the content and community on campus, with a goal towards human development
and moral progress. And then both of these, he notes, require
a culture of civility to go along with the development of skills that might be demanded
by Utility U. The models coexist on most campuses, but generate
a kind of interference effect and the product of this is some of the tension that we read
about from time to time in the newspapers. Appiah wraps up by observing that universities
do provide public goods, including the public good of an educated citizenry which is able
to challenge its rulers. And that it’s really best to do both: for students
to develop their skills and to develop their personal identity on campus at the same time. I found this essay promising but ultimately unsatisfying. I think that Appiah raises but does not answer
sufficiently several key questions about higher education. Specifically: is there any place for tenured
faculty in Utility U? And is Utopia U. really worth annual payments
in the mid five figures for many middle class families that are struggling in an economy
that’s been bad for some time? I think Appiah underestimates the threat that
the liberal arts face, both politically and socially, and he misjudges the extent of the
gap between differing perceptions of higher education, its purpose, and its ends. Now, that said, it’s quite a good essay and
I encourage you to click through on the link in the comments below, in the description
below, and read it. Leave your comments for me or on the article
on The New York Times website. That’s the end of my commentary for today.
Thanks for watching; bye.