Culture & Society

What is College All About?

The students of today and tomorrow must think of college not as a mere hurdle, but as an invitation to start building a life

College should be seen as the start of building one’s life–and exposure to pluralism in college helps strengthen the foundation of that life. Image Credit: skynesher/Getty Images

While the politicization of higher education (or attempts to root out political bias in the classroom, depending on whom you ask) tends to grab a lot of headlines these days, it’s far from the only issue worth our consideration when it comes to free thought in education. This academic year, colleges are being forced to contend with the constantly expanding powers of generative artificial intelligence: Students are using ChatGPT to produce papers that allow them to circumvent the learning process in ways that are nearly impossible to detect. Paraphrasing tools enable students to quickly summarize difficult text making it less likely that they will read texts they find challenging or uninteresting.

I bring up generative AI not to sidestep the importance of addressing political bias and polarization in higher education, but to remind us that one of biggest issues educators face is that students hold efficiency as their highest value. As much as students believe their religious and political identities are important, I worry that many students think efficiency is even more important. At the end of the day, too many students will choose to let AI do their work, even if this means robbing themselves of opportunities to think through and deepen their beliefs, and grow in their identities with wisdom and confidence.

Although we should remain vigilant about bias and polarization in education, AI poses just as much, if not more, of a threat to the liberal arts ideal. Too many young people will find it easier to outsource difficult and challenging assignments to AI rather than do their own thinking. And this is a problem worthy of all our attention: If we care about freedom and personal responsibility, then we should be concerned about the outsize role that AI could play in education.

The next few years—indeed, even the next few months—will be a turning point in how we use this potentially great, potentially dangerous tool. Rather than turning away from challenges and leaving problems up to the robots, it’s the perfect time for college students to reflect on why they’re actually on campus.

The Ultimate Plural Experience

As a scholar of liberal education and a longtime liberal educator, I truly believe that a college education worthy of the name teaches the reality of pluralism. What often gets lost in discussions of the biases and politics of liberal arts colleges is any discussion of the structure and goals of the liberal arts curriculum. Pluralism is built into the structure of a liberal arts curriculum because students are forced to take courses outside of their major and minor fields of study. Math majors must take humanities courses, and humanities majors must take lab sciences. To graduate from a liberal arts college, students will be exposed to different ideas and ways of thinking. They will learn that different disciplines view the world through different and sometimes competing lenses and that different people within disciplines view problems differently and come to different solutions to these problems.

By focusing so narrowly on the political affiliation of college professors, we can lose sight of the fact that students following a liberal arts course of study will take courses that challenge them to make sense of the fact that fields of study often teach very different visions of what it means to be human. For example, students required to take an economics course to fulfill their graduation requirements will often begin thinking about the strengths and limitations of the market as a means of promoting human well-being, and that will raise new questions in their minds.

Can everything we humans value be given a cost? Should some things never be put up for sale: organs, upgraded prison cells, opportunities to kill an endangered animal? Even within a single major, students learn about the range of ways we humans have responded to the world. Philosophy students learn that people disagree deeply about the nature of free will and the meaning of the good life. Religious studies students learn that varieties of beliefs and worship exist in the world. And anthropology students learn about the ranges of child-rearing practices that we humans have practiced.

The structure of the liberal arts curriculum matters so much because it helps us begin to see the abiding connections between pluralism and a liberal education. And when educators start to think about those connections, it’s no wonder why they’re worried about what AI might do to the plural higher education experience. Technology can give the impression of neutrality, but it’s really a tool that can flatten the experience of pluralism. If students use AI in all their courses, they might be given the impression that different fields of study aren’t so different after all.

Instead of puzzling through how an economist might respond to an ethical problem in their required economics class, they just ask AI. Instead of even bothering to think about what Homer’s “Odyssey” might have to say about developing resilience, they let AI do the work. Instead of doing the hard work of making sense of how to make a life in a world comprised of many disciplinary frameworks, they prize the speed and ease with which AI can do their thinking for them. This makes the liberal arts curriculum into a series of boxes to check in order to graduate, rather than a journey of learning how to think.

Overcoming Rigidity and Chaos

While pluralism is an essential part of the higher education experience, it is true that exposure to different views can prove stressful and disorienting to students. While pluralism often has the benefit of inducing humility and curiosity, it can also leave a student wondering how to decide what matters. If reasonable and deeply intelligent people can disagree so vehemently on matters of grave importance, students may be left with little confidence that they can possibly navigate a world of plural and often competing values.

Because of this, students might retreat into places where their exposure to pluralism is limited. They might only take classes where they know they can be successful because they’ve mastered the tools of the field. They might try to surround themselves with people who believe that their field of study is superior, and with students who share their beliefs. They might engage with media that confirm that not only are they on a good path, but the best and only path. And yes, they might ultimately embrace AI to do their work. Coming from a place of fear or disorientation, they can dismiss the views and beliefs of others without engaging with them or listening to them.

Here’s a simple way to think about it: Students who fear pluralism vacillate between the poles of rigidity and chaos. One becomes rigid in the face of pluralism by asserting a superiority that closes itself off to new ideas. One becomes chaotic in the face of pluralism by assuming that all ideas are equally good. In both cases, what is lost is a sense of freedom and personal responsibility.

Here, it may be useful to consider the experience of a student in an introductory course in ethics. Often, these courses expose students to a range of approaches to living a good life: Aristotelian, Judeo-Christian, deontological, utilitarian, postmodern. Students may find an approach that resonates most with them, causing them to refuse engagement with approaches that complicate their preferred approach. They become rigid, and a sense of “knowingness” prevails that cuts off the student’s free and responsible search for truth and purpose.

The chaotic student, by contrast, realizes how hard it is to select an approach to living that is most authentic to who they are and what they believe, and so chooses not to decide at all. These students follow the beliefs of their peer group, the adults who raised them or even passing whims. Once again, that free and responsible search for truth and purpose loses meaning.

Unfortunately, generative AI will make it easier for students to retreat into rigidity and chaos, robbing them of the opportunity to learn how to live wisely in a world of plural and competing values. It is incumbent on colleges to address this issue squarely. College advising and mentoring will become even more important in the coming years, and these mentors must ask the right questions to help prepare their mentees for the next steps in their lives. As these students work toward graduation, are they more able to engage with, and listen to, views that initially appeared challenging if not morally odious? Are they more able to sort through competing approaches to living in ways that help them make better sense of how to live their own lives?

As AI can do more work for humans, the cultivation of ethical and moral discernment and judgment will also become increasingly important. And as we continue to address the problems of bias and polarization in higher education, colleges must also focus on how to empower students to grow in their ability to face new ideas with wisdom. They can do this by explicitly building in opportunities, such as oral exams and personalized mentoring, where students take the time to reflect on how different aspects of the liberal arts curriculum pull in different directions, and how they find ways to choose which disciplinary approach, or intellectual tradition, makes the most sense to them, and why.

The search for meaning and purpose is central to a liberal education, and that’s why I believe we must become ever more articulate about college, that it is where one can begin the work of composing a life that one can be proud of in the face of reasonable, and often vehement, disagreement. Although a course may feel like a mere requirement on the way to a degree, and though readings may often feel like chores when compared to the fun that is happening just down the hall, they are ultimately invitations to become a bigger self, more confident and discerning in a world of plural and competing values.

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