C. S. Lewis on the Modernization of Higher Education

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and promotion of faculty researchers who garner outside grant monies. Students are consumers in the higher education industry.  Research agendas tend toward that which can be most readily commercialized for profit.  The desired outcome of higher education as an industry is a bigger bang for the buck of taxpayer money, through productivity and efficiency, all toward economic development and personal success.  Lewis’ Progressives follow industry logic to its ultimate ends of money and power, and to its ultimate conclusion of a brutal hand-to-hand struggle to dominate.

Higher education began as a social institution rooted in the medieval church.  The main driving impetus of a social institution is to benefit society in the long term for coming generations. Long-term social benefits are at essence externalities that are hard to encapsulate for profit, such as informed citizens, wellness, cross-cultural awareness.  Students are treated as members of a learning community.  Learning is valued for its own sake.  Non-profit managers tend to honor their donors by using resources with good stewardship, often at personal sacrifice, inspiring participation through their ethos.  Original research is pursued for the sake of inquiry.  Desired outcomes are the fruition and wholeness of persons and of society.  As a scholar of medieval literature, Lewis could bask in the traditions that formed higher education.

Any scholar of higher education, that is, one who specializes in the history, purpose, governance, and organization of higher education, knows that today the current is flowing strongly in the direction of industrialization (Altbach, 2001: Duderstadt, 2000; Jongbloed, 2007).  In Europe and North America, governments’ standing commitments to social security, health, and defense demand an increasing share of public funds.  Higher education is seen as a discretionary current public expense, despite its key role in shaping the future (Johnstone, 1989).  Tighter public funding has brought about the accountability movement, whereby higher education institutions are expected to account for their use of taxpayer money in terms of an expected return on investment (Jongbloed, 2007).  Tighter funding, in tandem with rising technology and administrative costs, has led to rising tuition, including the introduction of tuition in countries with long histories of full subsidization.  Because student loans have become the solution to the tuition problem, to rationalize their rising debt, students themselves have become more consumerist.

Massification, or the mass expansion of educational opportunity, brought more students into the higher education sector.  In a globalized economy, the ultimate effect of such a mass market is the commodification of higher education-that is, an accounting course will serve the same ends whether it is earned in Brussels or Palermo.  The Bologna Process in Europe is a voluntary effort by higher education leaders and ministries of education to harmonize their national systems, such that credits and degrees can transfer across borders (Stocktaking, 2007; Witte, 2006).  The current phase of discussion envisions a Europe in which each degree is defined in terms of the skills expected by a graduate (www.insidehighered, 2008). [See works cited for full hyperlink] Skills are easier to encapsulate for the sciences and professions than for the humanities and other interdisciplinary studies.  I doubt that Lewis would welcome the application of outcomes-based assessment, because such a checklist approach readily resorts to quantitative methods under a materialist perspective.  I disagree in part with Lewis here, in that I believe that it is possible to perform effective assessment in the humanities and even in the spiritual formation of students (my research area).  With Lewis, I do remain concerned, however, that it is all too expedient to quantify by omitting outcomes that are as complex as they are important.

I see two reasons to hope along with Lewis that we may avoid the ultimate materialist conclusion for higher education.  First, it can be avoided by steering toward a not-for-profit structure and ethos.  The current trend of hybridization, also called social entrepreneurship, is moving for-profits toward a not-for-profit orientation.  As an example of a not-for-profit organization, I offer as a specific case my own institution.  Calvin College was founded in 1876 by the Christian Reformed Church to train pastors, and later teachers.  Today the college serves as a comprehensive liberal arts college.  Funding came originally from denominational sources.  A religious community valued education highly enough to sacrifice of their substance.

Religious education has unique attributes in the current higher education environment, which may promote its survival.  Its denominational funding base drives the religious nature of its mission.  The mission of religious education is to tie meaning with material facts in ways that value and judgment can be explored, taught, and researched.  Its research agenda is pursued based on common religious beliefs that form a shared philosophy (or Tao).  The ethos of both individuals and the learning community is couched in the Tao.  In these ways, religiously-integrated higher education is seated on the right side of the picture, opposing stark materialism, yet embracing all of material Creation.