Ernest Boyer

Going to College in America

VTR Date: February 21, 1987

Guest: Boyer, Ernest


“Going to College in America”
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. Ernest Boyer
VTR: 2/21/81

Heffner: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I was taught early on that teacher is a noble title, teaching a noble profession. Well, maybe so. But one can teach well or poorly, the setting for teaching and learning can be good or bad. And, as for the taught, their college experience can be enormously stimulating and personally meaningful, or as one fears for so many American college students today, it can be dull, largely a thoughtless exercise and ever so much more market-driven than truly education-driven.

My guest today has spent a professional lifetime righting educational wrongs. But, as President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Ernest Boyer’s recent study, College, the Undergraduate Experience in America, doesn’t make those concerned with out educational future exactly stand up and cheer. And I want first to ask Dr. Boyer just how could a market-drive society possibly produce education-driven colleges and undergraduates and maybe even college administrations.

Boyer: I think it’s possible because the problem that’s been posed so frequently is that it’s either or. We completed a college study as you suggested, several thousand hours on college campuses. And we were discouraged by the preoccupation with credentialing on the many, on many campuses. In fact we surveyed high school students and ninety-five percent said they wanted to go to college to get a job. Forty percent of the college students said they’d drop out of college today if they thought the degree wouldn’t improve their career chances. And the change in the majors has been dramatic in the past fifteen years. Over half the degrees are in business and other technical fields. And, what struck me, however, was that this is not evil in itself. Useful work is appropriate. In fact I read a history of Cambridge University and CP Snow concluded that they, the students came to Cambridge in the twelfth century because they wanted jobs. It’s not wrong to have a degree that you think will make you useful. The real challenge, I think, is to include in our preparation for work, however it’s defined, ethical and moral and historical perspective. And the theme of our report is, let’s find a way to combine the liberal and the useful arts. And if we don’t bring them together I’m afraid we’re going to have people who are competent, but who do not have perspective to make responsible judgments in our increasingly dangerous and interdependent world.

Heffner: Well, certainly in our own time, though, Dr. Boyer, we’re emphasizing competition, were the pressure must therefore be upon the college to provide more and more and more of this almost vocational training for the college students.

Boyer: here’s where we come back to your first question. I think the colleges and the even, the academic departments and professors, if I might say so, are the ones who define what the nature of preparation is. Now if it’s just skills training, one wonders why it’s done on a college campus. Why not in a trade school or in a corporate classroom? And incidentally, as a footnote, at the Carnegie Foundation we prepared a report last year called Corporate Classrooms and discovered that business and industry is the fastest growing part of education today. Thirty billion dollars at least every year on that.

Heffner: Yes but you know you say the faculty itself and the administration, that together they can decide what to teach students. Right?


HEFFNER: But is that really so true in a nation that puts its emphasis upon “majoritorianism” to the extent that we do?

BOYER: Well, here again I’d have to say that some technical skill is necessary in many of the fields that students find attractive. And I don’t think we’re going to turn the clock back on that. I can’t imagine a four year degree that’s made up of courses that do not seem geared to the changing economic conditions of our time. Nor should it. On the other hand, let’s put it this way. If, when the student is enrolling, they say I wish to major in business and the advisor said, “That’s wonderful, we have an excellent program to prepare you for that, that includes studying something about the social and ethical implications of being a corporate executive or a business executive in the year two thousand and beyond, I should think students would accept that as a decision that’s been made by the academics. And incidentally, on that point alone, maybe they’re not speaking from full conscience, but I hear more frequently now corporate leaders saying they want people who are not only prepared in a technical way, but they want people who can deal with some historical and social and international issues because increasingly those are the matters that cause executives, I think, to, to face difficulties in their work.

Heffner: Isn’t that though where the change really could take place? Wherein the business community itself says, as you suggest, increasingly that they want the people with the broad moral, historical ethical background that you suggest. But for the academics to do it themselves when they’re competing as they’re competing, do you rally think that’s going to happen?

BOYER: Well, we found some in our study. I should say that in, as a part of our report called College we recommend that every major include what we call the “enriched major”. It’s one of the main themes in our report. And by the “enriched” major we mean that when it’s approved, those who present it should show that you’re not only presenting the specialty in preparing students to become technically competent, but you’re including in that major something about its history, something about its social significance and some about the ethical issues that you might confront. That that in fact is the test of an academic major in a, in an arts and science college or in an undergraduate college. Now I … I guess I believe that we have in education not just a followership, but a leadership role to play. and that while we’re getting the signals from students and from the job market that we need people who are geared toward careers, we have an obligation to ask, what does it mean to be an educated person? Accepting the urge toward career, but defining career more broadly. And that leads me to add one other footnote. One would expect that the college graduate is not only preparing for a job but also is prepared to meet some, to some degree, civic obligations. They should be civically prepared as well. And … now I must say we found in our campus visits considerable parochialism. And an attitude among students that did not really engage them in the social and civic issues of our time. And so, when we’re talking about the outcomes, it’s not only are you going toward work, but also, do you have a sense of your larger, civic relationships? In fact we say in our book College that there are two major goals in education. One is individualism, that is to make sure the student is empowered, as a person, to live economically and socially with some independence. But the other major theme of education is community. That is to recognize that you’re not only alone, but you’re a part of a larger community and you have some obligations to see connections. Now in American education in recent years, we’ve been very successful in emphasizing individual interests. We’ll offer programs that serve our own abilities and interests. We have, in my view, been less successful in reminding students, you also have larger social and civic obligations, to see your connections. So you’re independent and you’re interdependent.

HEFFNER: You know I have to ask you, just between the two of us …


HEFFNER: How would you bet, in what direction do you think we’ll go. Will the university, will the college, will the administration so frequently responsible to a state legislature, will colleges so frequently responsible to the competitiveness between private colleges, will they bite the bullet and take that responsibility?

BOYER: I’m not sure how much money I’d put on the table in my answer. I have evidence, I think, on both directions here. And let me just tell you the ambivalence I feel. I think you could argue the odds are increasingly going toward the market-driven. Careerism. Immediate utility. Because right now, at least, the demography suggests that colleges are competing for students. And the more they can say, “Come to use and we’ll make it payoff in immediate terms”, that’s a, that’s a hard sell that is popular with students. And so, I guess one part of me says I guess I’d bet in that direction. On the other hand, as I travel around now and listen to colleges themselves, I find an anxiousness about this point. That stirring of debate on campuses, at least the ones I visit and maybe I’m only invited to the ones where ..
Heffner: Where they agree with you.
BOYER: Where they agree with me. Exactly right. But hear a much more lively and, I think, responsible and exciting debate about how can the baccalaureate degree be something more than a credential, than I’ve heard in thirty years. During the fifties there was a euphoria of expansion. During the sixties, we were under siege. During the seventies there was a mood of retrenchment and economic decline and I see the eighties as a time of increased confidence in which the question is being turned, “What is the value and the meaning of a college education?”. I haven’t heard that discussed for many years and I find it encouraging.

HEFFNER: You know, I used to assign in a seminar I give at Rutgers, I used to assign John Henry Cardinal Newman’s, The Idea of A University. Until I began to realize that even in a senior seminar the idea of thinking about eh idea of a university was so farfetched that it became more and more difficult to get back from my students some sense that it, he had been read and understood. Even Clark Kerr’s The Uses of the University but, in fact, one went from the idea of a university, something unique …

BOYER: To the uses. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: To the uses.

BOYER: The very title tells you something.


BOYER: Right. Well, I grant you and I’d say the responsibility for that ignorance, if that’s not too harsh a term, lies with the way colleges view themselves. Now interesting that last Friday, two days ago, I was in California, at a national meeting that was called “The Freshman Year”. Interesting title. And these people coming from five different countries and hundreds of colleges in the United States were talking about how better to introduce freshman to the collegiate experience. And we heard several interesting examples where the colleges were providing a course or seminar on the meaning of a college, at the beginning of the experience. Where did higher education begin? What are the roots of this college? Why do we have general education? What do we expect in our outcomes? And the student is given some sense of orientation to what collegiate life is all about without making it heavy or ponderous. In fact we say in our book a freshman told us, at a really distinguished liberal arts college, I can’t tell you the name, she said “Last summer I had a, a summer job working at a hotel chain”. She said, “They spent two days telling me about the history of the hotel chain, I went around and met all the departments, and they welcomed me to the hotel family”. And then she added, “I had a greater sense of orientation and understanding about how that hotel chain worked than I did about how this college carries on its business and what its expectations are”. I guess my hope would be, to come to the point, that we would spend a little time telling students about this passage that’s now begun. And incidentally that’s going to be very costly to them. And give them a sense of excitement and stir the aspirations, then I would think when they come to Newman and the Idea of a University they would find it an interesting and worthwhile inquiry.

HEFFNER: But you know, when you talk about the sense of community and you say you, you feel that there is a growing sense of community on the college campus. What does that mean in terms of the colleges, what do you want it to mean in terms of the college’s reassumption of responsibility for and authority over the life of the student, while a student? I remember after, having been away from Rutgers for many years, going back in 1964 and being asked to serve on a student-faculty-administration committee on in loco parentis.

BOYER: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Crazy like a parent. And at that time, of course, we’re in the midst of sloughing off those responsibilities.

BOYER: Yes. Yes.

HEFFNER: What do you want the college to do in that area?

BOYER: Well, this was one of the tension points that we described and I find it one of the most fascinating and I must confess here, most bewildering. I’m not quite sure what I will do, would do, if I were trying to run a university. But let me describe the problem this way. Outside the classroom, very clear, often. Faculty, here are the rules and here’s what we expect and here’s what the grade will be governed by. Now up until the early mid-si9xties, most colleges had a sense of, as you sad, almost parental responsibility. And no once questioned it. Well, if they did it was clearly the university’s authority to move in. But then with the sixties and I lived through that decade, too, with some anguish, the notion of parent was abolished. We’re independent, we’re adults and practically all of the outside of classroom regulations were forgotten. So we’ve lived now for what, some fifteen, near twenty years, in a climate in which students are admitted but where there are no expectations or clearly defined regulations. It places *** and we heard administrators talk with greater ambivalence and I’d say anguish about this than any other area. Even when, when something goes wrong, take Len Bias as a terrible recent memory, overdoses. Who is on television night after night, the Chancellor of the university and no one accepts the statement, “Well, it wasn’t our responsibility”, even though he was living, I understand, in non-university housing. The legal and to some degree moral responsibilities come back on the university even though they’ve somehow removed their expected authority. I guess I say this. I believe we’re going to have to formulate a new set of understandings about how a collegiate community is governed. You’re no longer parent, but does that mean there are no criteria by which ground rules are established?

HEFFNER: But you know that brings me back to, almost to the first question. In a market-driven society, can you have an education-driven, are you likely to have an education-driven college system? Where parents, themselves in the flesh and blood, have abandoned that responsibility of acting as parents, how can the university, how can the college possibly act in the place of the parent? Today acting in the place of a parent almost means paying no attention to the students.

BOYER: (Laughter) Yes. Well I don’t think we’re ever going to go back to where you are, in a sense, exercising rigid parental control. I think there must be a middle ground. And incidentally, part of it is educational, not just regulatory.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

BOYER: I mean by that, all of the research data that’s gone on over the years shows that there’s as much or more learning that’s enduring outside the classroom, that’s in. Bear in mind that students are in a classroom how many, twelve hours a week, thirteen hours a week? For a hundred and whatever it is, forty-five or fifty, whatever. They’re out doing something else. And the quality of that experience shouldn’t, that shouldn’t be trivialized because the influences that occur outside the classroom are the ones that give meaning, presumably, to the classroom. Part of it’s through study and incidentally, we have found the library really dreadfully under-used, I mean just formally using the places of learning. But the informal activities, what happens in the Rathskeller or what kind of colloquy are scheduled outside the classroom.

BOYER: Or what happens in the residence hall. Is it always a party or can there be seminars? Can there be discussions? When students can, perhaps, even be more honest and more engaged than when they are sitting in a classroom? So the issue of non-classroom activity is not simply how do we keep tragedies from occurring by regulating through heavy-handed parental involvement, but rather how can we make this a more integrated community of learning in which classroom and non-classroom activities can be reinforcing of each other.

HEFFNER: Of course it was Marshall McLuhan who said that every school child knows that going to class interrupts his education.

BOYER: Well.

HEFFNER: That it really happens outside the classroom.

BOYER: I think the evidence for that is overwhelming. I would only wish then that there would be a little, little more systematic thought given as to the nature of that, that faculty connectedness to some of the out of classroom activities would be more obvious. I happen to be at Princeton now and they, in the past five years, have organized the house system, more completely and faculty are in residence in these and also, seminars are held. I was just a couple of weeks ago meeting with a group, in the dorm right after they had had their evening meal, unscheduled but, I mean it was announced but no requirement to come and talk about some of our work on college study. Twenty-five or thirty came, I enjoyed it, I hope they did, too. But my point is, it’s possible to say to students that your education is not limited to the class assignment, it can be felt throughout the campus and informally, as well. That’s the point that I’m suggesting.

HEFFNER: Dr. Boyer, in your life experience, as Commissioner of Education, Chancellor in New York and now as the author of College: The Undergraduate Experience in America, I wonder how you react to the notion that has been expressed by people sitting at this table, that in America, in terms of our educational system the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. And this is a nation that will increasingly in this century and the next, be divided by class, but class told in terms of educational opportunities taken.

BOYER: I think that that’s the overwhelmingly essential challenge of this nation. We just finished several years ago, a report on secondary schools in America called High School. And now we’re going back to look at high schools. And I am convinced that we are increasingly dividing ourselves between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. And that certainly shows up in poverty. But it’s showing up increasingly in educational attainment. I’m not at all sanguine about what’s happening in the high schools of this country for about a third of our students. And as I look at the school reform movement, which gets below the college level, I see perhaps half or more of our schools really responding. Higher standards for graduation, better teacher pay, more academic units and I think to that extent we can have two cheers for the reform movement. But I see a third or more of our schools and the children in them being underserved and perhaps falling farther behind. More requirements, but not adequate resources to help them overcome the disadvantages. And incidentally, therefore, a declining percentage of Blacks and Hispanics going on the higher education.

HEFFNER: Once you get to higher education in terms of your study of college in America, is that less true? This division, this division between the … those who have and those who have not?

BOYER: To some degree the separation is not as acute in, as it is in the preschool and then the preceding years to college. In fact the encouraging part of college is, for the Blacks who finish, they tend to be to some degree more advantaged in the marketplace, in other words, for those who make it through the whole system. Because we are eager to have educated minorities and those with college degrees from reasonably credible institutions have an advantage. But what is the tragedy is, that colleges are not, in my opinion, working closely enough with schools to really overcome the tremendous failure and especially in language proficiency. I mean many of the, many of the student drop out of high school unable to complete their academic work and unable, effectively to use English and if they do come to college they, very often, have remediation that’s absorbing increasingly the money that could be used for good collegiate educations. So, I guess in the larger scene, I do believe that the number one agenda for this nation is to confront the inequities that still exist and incidentally, why it’s an urgency is that the demography is such that while White America is growing older, Black and Brown America remain a youthful population. And therefore, increasingly, will populate the public schools. About a third of all school children by the year two thousand will be Black or Hispanic. Now if those young people are not adequately educated, it follows that the colleges can be no stronger than the schools that precede it. So we’re not talking about an issue unrelated to college, it’s at the heart of quality collegiate education.

HEFFNER: The day that we tape this show, as we sit here, the Sunday New York Times has an Op Ed piece by John Silber of Boston University, very critical of the present Administration in terms of what he considers the mistake it’s making in cutting educational program budgets. Do you feel that what is happening today is having a long lasting, will have a long-lasting impact upon the quality of American education? In terms of fiscal support?

BOYER: I’m discouraged by the recommendations that would diminish support for middle and lower income students. Cutting back on the opportunities to achieve equity and some degree of choice. I think the remarkable story in this country has been that the federal government has been a partnership on the basis of equity. And I believe it has had a remarkable contribution in raising hopes and aspirations for people who a generation or two ago couldn’t imagine, couldn’t imagine that they’d be able to have further education. Up to now the Congress has been able to recover these draconian proposals. But the truth is that if we were to follow through on the recommendations now being proposed by this Administration, I believe it would have a disastrous impact on the very point we just discussed.

HEFFNER: If we don’t, if the Congress maintains its position, will we end up in 1988, 1989 terribly much worse off than we were eight years before then?

BOYER: You mean in terms of …

HEFFNER: Federal involvement with education.

BOYER: Oh I think so, I think so.

HEFFNER: In other words, it’s happened already?

BOYER: I think that we began to see the erosion of this some years ago. And Congress has moved to protect it. But I guess there’s a state of mind here. What I would like for us to understand, at least my bias is that this nation is going to stand or fall on the quality of its investment in its children. And without an educated population, without an investment in the coming generation, all of our technology, all of our legislation will fall by the wayside because we can only be as strong as the quality of our children in the education we give them. And to me, we have been made strong because we have had a vital and expanding education system for the nation.

HEFFNER: Dr. Boyer that’s an appropriate point at which to end our program. I do appreciate your coming today and discussing the undergraduate experience in America. Thanks a lot.

BOYER: It’s been good to be here. I enjoyed it.

HEFFNER: Thanks. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s topic, please write The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, send $2.00 in check or money order.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from:
The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; Pfizer Inc.; The New York Times Company Foundation.