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President Richard M. Joel: ‘University Must be About Not Just Making a Living But Building a Life’

Rising tuitions, stagnant job markets and bleak economic realities have finally compelled universities and their students to ask some tough questions: Is a college education worth it? Does a college degree actually offer value beyond an impressive wall ornament? And as universities across the nation carry on their struggles to stay afloat, why even bother?

President Richard Joel

President Richard M. Joel

Years ago, I had the honor of taking part in a meeting at the White House convening educational leaders for an open discussion with then President George W. Bush. At one point, the President remarked that “the purpose of higher education is to prepare our children to compete in the global economy.” I mustered the courage to respectfully respond: “Mr. President — at Yeshiva University, we take a slightly different view. We believe the purpose of education is to ennoble and enable our students.” “Ennoble and enable,” he said, smiling. “I like that.”

In many ways, the American university is in danger of losing its soul. Now we must ask ourselves: Long after students forget how to determine the number of valence electrons in a Palladium atom or how exactly to apply the law of diminishing returns, which ideas and ideals will stand the test of time and inform the remainder of their adult existence?

It is my belief that without a unifying theme, without purposeful context, without asking and answering seemingly audacious yet entirely legitimate questions like “so what?” and “for what?” those facts and formulas will lose both luster and efficacy.

The problem is that for far too many, the notion of “higher education” simply suggests the process of amassing lots of facts, acquiring technical know-how or methodological jargon and steeping oneself in academic erudition. To be sure, then notion of excellence in academic thought must remain central to the identity of the university. But academic excellence, however critically important to the process, only serves as half of the equation.

William Butler Yeats explained that “education is not about filling a bucket but lighting a fire.” Yeats, in a moment of prophetic insight, was speaking to our Wikipedia generation with its unique ability and growing propensity for downloading information at rapid speeds, yet all the while mired in paradox: a world of knowledge lies at our fingertips — and yet we feel increasingly lost. An intricate network of friends on social media — and yet we feel increasingly alone. We maniacally fill our Yeatsian buckets, and yet our fire remains dismally extinguished.

Education must embrace new technological media — but it must also be the kindling for that internal fire. Education has the power to lend texture and nuance and color to our lives and infuse them with meaning. Education empowers us to wrestle not only with ideas but with ideals, with the delicate, tenuous, underlying questions of life and existence. Education can allow young women and men to never feel alone, but become stakeholders in a collective future, strongly sensing their individual and communal mandates to matter in the world.

But that is decidedly not the road that society has influenced higher education to take, as exemplified by the experience of countless college students who have been conditioned to see a university education as nothing more than vocational fast-tracking. They feed into process of developing what William Deresiewicz describes as “world class hoop jumpers,” individuals who mindlessly surpass benchmarks and pad resumes on the path towards career success.

As the steward of a religious mission driven institution, I have to believe that there is more. David Brooks recently described mission-driven universities and their drive for “two-sided success” as a “necessary counterculture.”

Surely, we must equip our students with the mechanical competence to compete in the global economy — but our success as educators is equally determined through the way they comport themselves in that competition, with honesty, integrity and goodness, traits that too often run “counterculture.” Surely, academic thought stands at the epicenter of any great university — but our success is equally determined by how that wisdom helps students understand their role in bettering the world and curing its evils.

How does “ennoble and enable” translate? How do we do it? To enable, we must provide our students with the resources necessary to procure 21st-century career opportunities, whether through career services, entrepreneurial courses, externships, alumni mentoring and so forth.

To ennoble, though, we must provoke the value of values throughout the process. On a curricular level, more college courses should seek to engage with the moral dimension of the subject matter at hand. Universities should provide students with opportunities to engage in meaningful service learning beyond the walls of the university, using their knowledge not only to advance themselves but others as well, and broaden their horizons in the process. Universities should seek to foster a sense of community, bound not merely by a shared desire for revelry but by higher notions of responsibility. In summary, university must be about not just making a living but building a life.

Through such courses, programs and initiatives, a college education remains not merely “worth it” but profoundly necessary. We in the university world must return to the rightful roots of higher education by not merely doling out credentials but deeply educating; by showing students both the poetry and the prose of human experience; by ennobling and enabling them to lead productive, successful and purposeful lives.

Richard M. Joel is the President and Bravmann Family University Professor at Yeshiva University. Follow him on Twitter @PresJoel. This op-ed originally appeared on The Huffington Post