Now that Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin’s education indoctrination task force is likely to focus on higher education in its meeting Thursday, it may be timely and appropriate to express what many educators think the role or function of higher/university education is.
I strongly believe that students and faculty, as partakers in the experience of higher education, should be given a prime voice and a much larger and much more influential role than they have had in the past. After all, it is the students that the university is all about. Let student bodies and faculty senates wield real power and not be treated as “debating societies.”
It is almost self-evident that universities should address the whole individual, creating thinking people who will contribute to the larger society in various ways. Education is not training; there is a big difference between higher education and job training.
The university, in my estimate, should prepare broadly educated adults, who can then take on diverse assignments or jobs, as the need arises and as opportunities open up. A thinking university graduate can and will do anything.
Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Education is about questioning and re-examining mainstream, long-accepted dogmas and practices if they prove inadequate, even harmful, in changing times.
I hold that all education, especially higher education, should enable and encourage independent, innovative, and “enterprising” thinking in its students. Nothing is pre-judged. Prima facie, no specific doctrine or ideology should be favored or dismissed in university education.
Higher education is not like filling a bucket with water.
A better metaphor would be that education is preparing ice cream, where a lot of churning occurs with many ingredients in the making of it. It’s not cramming or stuffing students’ “empty” minds with facts. Students can “Google” for mining information. But (higher) education teaches students about sifting, synthesizing, analyzing and (re)interpreting the data, the information they have culled: Educating students is giving them “space” to challenge.
Let me give some examples of how this total freedom of expression and encouragement to thinking for themselves were put into practice in some of my BSU classes: At one point, the whole class enthusiastically endorsed the revolutionary concept of “no taxation without representation.” On another occasion, we — the students and I — discussed the issue of taxation, the students in the class taking opposing sides: whether the rich should be required to pay their “fair” share of taxes — and many such matters that would be unpalatable to and draw ire from many Idaho legislators. No sacred cows in higher education. No subject, no thought, is taboo. The only requirement for myself and the students was that we marshal convincing data, incontrovertible evidence, in support of our positions.
Even though the professor (in this case) was originally from India, no special concession or “soft corner” was entertained on Indian issues: Once, in one of my classes, there was strong criticism of the age-old hierarchical and inherently unequal stratification of Indian society — the caste system. On the other hand, when discussing and evaluating Mahatma Gandhi, almost the whole class praised his contribution to humanity in terms of his insistence on non-violent transformation. New socio-political paradigms were often discussed in my classes.
In my estimate, that’s a taste of higher education.
Mohan R. Limaye, of Boise, is a professor emeritus at Boise State University with 40-plus years of teaching experience in various universities, including the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, University of Texas at Austin, Colorado State University at Fort Collins, and lastly at Boise State.