Looking down the barrel at a costly college education, many students might want to ask what, exactly, they are getting for their money. After all, even the cheapest state schools run a few thousand dollars per year, and pricey private colleges top out at more than $30 grand. Add in room and board, and you're talking about $40,000+ for a single year of school. Multiply that over 4-5 years, throw in a few thousand for a semester overseas, and the price of an education moves into the Rolls Royce range.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the purpose of a college education; as I mentioned then, the most important skill that college can develop is the ability to think critically. Since I've been out of the academy, I've talked to a large number of people who are working (and hiring other workers) in the "real world." I've repeatedly heard that companies want their college-educated employees to be able to think independently, to be able to come to their own conclusions, and to be capable of understanding the consequences of a course of action. In other words, they want employees who are able to think critically. Unfortunately, however, this highly-important skill is in incredibly short supply.
There are a lot of reasons that students aren't being taught to be critical and independent thinkers. First off, it's a very hard thing to teach, and many professors aren't up to the challenge. Also, the hierarchical nature of the classroom makes it difficult to create free thinkers. Most importantly, though, universities have increasingly become bastions of dogma, the sworn enemy of free thought. In other words, rather than learn to evaluate the truth and value of a perspective, students are being inundated with the unevaluated and untested prejudices of their professors.
The way to combat dogma is through exposure to a variety of different perspectives. To become top critical thinkers, students have to be able to break down both their own arguments and those of their opponents. They must be able to explore the logical underpinnings of the various positions, evaluate the moral value of the statements, and determine the degree to which arguments rely on emotional appeals. To develop this ability, students need to be exposed to a wide variety of political, economic, philosophical, and social perspectives.
To help develop a broader range of perspectives, the University of Colorado at Boulder is talking about instituting an endowed chair of conservative thought. This professor, who would change every couple of years, would offer a political balance to the decidedly left-wing tilt of scholarship at the school. The idea is that, by instituting a conservative chair, the University could, perhaps, present students with the opportunity to more effectively analyze and evaluate some of the actual political perspectives that are at play in the political arena.
UC Boulder's idea, predictably, met with a fair bit of criticism, both from the right and the left. In truth, however, it might represent the best way for the left-leaning ivory tower to maintain its ever-eroding intellectual relevance. Contemporary students may be forgiven for believing that intellectual deadbeats like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter represent the height of conservative thinking, but the perspective actually has a long and illustrious intellectual tradition, from Edmund Burke to William F. Buckley Jr. and beyond. In fact, speaking of Buckley, Stetson University kicked off a conservative speaking series with a lecture by him, and Georgetown University hired noted conservative George Tenet. Boulder might be one of many schools that are taking the next step toward improving education.
Rather than pandering to the right, hiring conservative thinkers is simply good scholarship, and universities that are interested in producing top-notch graduates will give serious thought to following UC Boulder's lead. Moreover, students who want to be employable in a few years would do well to ask themselves if their schools are giving them the preparation that they need to fully function in a world that needs both a left and a right wing to fly.
Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He's a liberal thinker, which means he disagrees with everybody!
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