CHAPTER SIX
THE PURPOSES
OF HIGHER EDUCATION

Higher education cannot succeed unless lower education does. If high schools are not educating most students up to the democratic threshold, then many colleges and universities will continue the primary education of their students. Many American colleges have already assumed this role: most community colleges offer high-school graduates a second chance at achieving basic literacy, often for the explicit sake of helping them get a job. The fact that most American colleges compete for students rather than vice versa reinforces this market perspective on higher education. The perspective is both pedagogically and morally uncomfortable. Most professors are neither trained nor motivated to teach either basic literacy or job skills. Many students who could benefit from an extended high-school education are effectively excluded from receiving one, because even community colleges are costly, if only by virtue of the income that students from poor families must forego to attend them.

If college education is to be part of primary education, it should be made free and compulsory. One might argue that the time has come in the United States for an extension of compulsory schooling, since every increase in compulsory schooling so far has been a step towards equalizing democratic citizenship by excluding fewer children from a more adequate primary education. Twelve years of schooling may not be enough time to cultivate the character and teach the basic skills of democratic citizenship.1 Then why not require a college education in the name of nonexclusion?

There are at least two reasons to look for a better alternative. First, colleges are unlikely to succeed for students after high school has failed them. Most poorly educated students needed better, not more, schooling. Second, even if college could succeed in adequately educating all

____________________
1
Most school-leaving age laws today stop just short of the normal age of completing high school. A further extension of compulsory education to coincide with the normal age of high-school graduation might be yet another victory for democratic citizenship. Although a much larger proportion of citizens in the 1980s than in the 1970s completed four years of high school, a substantial minority (13.8 percent of citizens between the ages of 25 and 29 in 1982) still lack a high-school education. See Digest of Educational Statistics 1983–84 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1984), p. 13.

-172-

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