Kwame Anthony Appiah on the two visions of American higher education:

One vision focuses on how college can be useful — to its graduates, to employers and to a globally competitive America. When presidential candidates talk about making college more affordable, they often mention those benefits, and they measure them largely in dollars and cents. How is it helping postgraduate earnings, or increasing G.D.P.? As college grows more expensive, plenty of people want to know whether they’re getting a good return on their investment. They believe in Utility U.

Another vision of college centers on what John Stuart Mill called “experiments in living,” aimed at getting students ready for life as free men and women. (This was not an entirely new thought: the “liberal” in “liberal education” comes from the Latin liberalis, which means “befitting a free person.”) Here, college is about building your soul as much as your skills. Students want to think critically about the values that guide them, and they will inevitably want to test out their ideas and ideals in the campus community. (Though more and more students are taking degrees online, most undergraduates will be on campus a lot of the time.) College, in this view, is where you hone the tools for the foundational American project, the pursuit of happiness. Welcome to Utopia U.

Together, these visions — Utility and Utopia — explain a great deal about modern colleges and universities. But taken singly, they lead to very different metrics for success.

Appiah walks through this tired old dichotomy only in order to say: Why not both?

(To be clear: like Appiah, I am only addressing the American context. Things can be different elsewhere, as, for example, in Japan, where a government minister has just asked all public universities to eliminate programs in the social sciences and humanities, including law and economics, and to focus instead on “more practical vocational education that better anticipates the needs of society.”)

A good general rule: when someone constructs an argument of this type — Between A and B there seems to be a great gulf fixed, but I have used my unique powers of insight to discern that this is a false dichotomy and we need not choose! — it is unlikely that they have described A fairly or described B fairly or described the conflict between then accurately.

So let’s try to parse this out with a little more care:

  • Some colleges (mainly the for-profit ones) promise nothing but utility.
  • Some colleges (say, St. John’s in Annapolis and Santa Fe) promise nothing but what Appiah calls Utopia, that is, an environment for pursuing essential and eternal questions.
  • Most colleges follow the example of Peter Quill, Star-Lord, and promise a bit of both.
  • Most students want, or at least claim to want, a bit of both. A few are driven primarily by intellectual curiosity, but they’d love to believe that a course of study organized around such explorations can also lead to a decent job after graduation; a great many more are primarily concerned to secure good job opportunities, but also want to confront interesting ideas and beautiful works of art. (Many of my best students in the Honors College at Baylor are pre-med, but love taking literature and philosophy courses for just this reason.)

Given this general state of affairs, with its range of sometimes-complementary and sometimes-conflicting forces at work, Appiah’s framing is simplistic — and also serves as a way to avoid the really key question for the coming years: Who will pay, and what will they pay for?


  1. Our general discussion of "higher education" in the US starts off on the wrong foot precisely because–as you suggest–we conflate everything from community colleges to engineering schools to giant state research universities to liberal arts colleges to elite research schools into one category and ask if "they" are doing the right sorts of things. I don't understand why we'd expect, or even want, them all to do the same thing, unless we have what seems to me the rather myopic view that one model of education is appropriate for everyone. Or if we're meddling regulators who feel compelled to fit everyone into a box where they can be sorted and rated according to our "rational" criteria…

  2. And many, especially of our elite schools, aim, as the Jesuits did, to teach the correct beliefs (not the beliefs the Jesuits taught, but just as unquestioning).

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