Initially, universities and colleges have been founded on three central promises such as (a) teaching, (b) public services, and (c) conducting academic research (Scott, 2006). Myriad surveys and studies executed regarding universities and colleges echo that the above three purposes of higher education have undergone huge changes over the past centuries, and the origins of these changes were political, social, economic, and demographic upheavals in the in the USA. Considering the three purposes of higher education and the impacts of political, economic, and social factors on them, I want to answer this question that how much the above purposes of higher education have altered over the course of history?
Brubacher and Rudy (1997) state that English Americans founded the colonial colleges in the USA so that their children could preserve the facets of “Old World civilization” which were valuable for their ancestors (p. 23). They add that arguably another factor which led to the establishment of colonial colleges in the USA was the demand for teaching religious matters for literate and educated priests. Likewise, Spencer (cited in Shapiro, 2009) holds that in the eighteenth century, the purpose of universities was to separate erudite men from less erudite men. It indicates that till the end of the eighteenth century, the focus of American higher education was on a typical stratum of the society.
With the advent of new social, political, cultural, and economic changes in the United States of America, the purpose of higher education was also changed. For example, Trepanier (2013) argues that in the early 1970s the purpose of universities was shifted from military research to civilian and commercial research so as to fulfill the needs of the ongoing emerging “global economy” (p. 4). He adds that before the Civil War in America, the primary purpose of American higher education was to train undergraduates as “good democratic citizens and leaders” (p. 6). Thus, the institutions held that to meet this necessity, they offered a liberal arts curriculum.
Thornton and Jaeger (2007) have quite a similar story that how previous American presidents were persuading the higher education institutions authorities to train strong leaders and productive citizens. They, in the article of The Ceremonies and Symbols of Citizenship, cite from President Jefferson that he was in this belief that universities of Virginia had to teach its students how to be responsible citizens and future leaders. Similarly, Lee (2016) in the book of Class and Campus Life writes that Linden College, a pseudonym liberal arts college, instilling this notion into its students that they are preparing them for tomorrow’s societal leadership.
Higher education institutions in the USA since their inception by the British Empire have undergone huge changes in terms of demographics. In 1790 there were 10,050 students, 141 faculty, and 11 institutions in the entire USA (Cohen, A. M., &Kisker, C. B., 2010). But after elapsing approximately three centuries and a half, the demographics of students, faculty, and higher education institutions in the USA is incomparable to 1790. For example, today only the University of Missouri accommodates 116,906 students, 1,168 faculty, and instructors, let alone all American higher education institutions (website of the University of Missouri, 2017).
So, booming population and increasing demographics of students led to social, political, and economic changes, and subsequently these various upheavals obliged higher education institutions authorities to expand the scope of their activities; as a result, the huge expansions in educational sectors changed the purpose higher education too. Nowadays, higher education authorities feel responsible for educating all the stratum of society rather than merely educating a privileged layer of the society or differing erudite folks from non-erudite ones.
One of the most political and social factors which disrupted the whole process of higher education and in particular the purpose of higher education was America’s Civil War (Shapiro, 2009). He argues that after the Civil War, we have noticed a huge tremendous of changes in the size and nature of the higher education. Shapiro (2009) asserts that the antebellum colleges and universities were not able to fulfill the needs of the society. Upon ending the Civil War, the numbers of higher education institutions increased, students and faculty demographics mounted rapidly, and especially the purpose of higher education shifted from merely teaching religious courses, literature and arts, and moral philosophy towards teaching the subjects and matters that society needed for tackling its social, political and economic challenges.
During the course of history not only the purpose of higher education is changed but also the governance anatomy, leadership models, curriculum, teaching methodologies, scope of higher education, physical body of higher education institutions, political, economic and social approaches towards higher education, and the status of interactions between faculty and students were all altered too. For instance, Bonfiglio (2004) says that in the past faculty-student interactions outside the classroom used to take place at professors’ homes – parlor. The faculty parlors were the main places where social, political, cultural, and economic ideas were used to be exchanged between students and professors. He adds that parlors were the main outdoor places where students could improve their social skills and capacities. He continues that when campus clubs such as (a) dining halls, (b) libraries, (c) student centers, and (d) other campus associations were set up, they replaced the faculty parlors. Hence, faculty ceded their dominance on students’ spare time.
The same story goes for the purpose of higher education. For example, the American higher education institutions in the colonial era were established with the purpose of teaching the religious matters to teach children but over the passages of time, political, social, economic, industrial, and technological metamorphosis led to the alternation of the purpose of higher education. For example, Scott (2006) argues that globalization and rapid changes in technology effectuated huge changes in the way how educational institutions educate the public. She adds that academic organizations are in the crux of these upheavals in society. Scott (2006) holds that educational institutions so as to embrace these social, political, and economic transformations, must remain exorable. Thus, higher education institutions, to prove their alignment and adaptational capacity with the new changes, nowadays constantly prepare and update their statement of missions based on their updated academic purposes.
Since the beginning of the postmodern era, there is another growing trend in higher education which tries to attract the purpose of higher education in its own direction. This new trend is promulgating the “Aristotelian prudence” (Trepanier (2013, p. 7). He suggests that the primary purpose of American higher education should be based on promoting the “character and practices of Aristotelian prudence” (p. 8). Moreover, he argues that erudition not only fills the gap between theoretical and practical reasoning for students but also it can act as a linchpin to wind the conventional activities of the higher education institutions – teaching, research, and public services. Further, it will capacitate the higher education to align its missions with the society today’s needs. Trepanier (2013) says that the propensity of promoting the “Aristotelian prudence” in higher education is originated from the idea of reinvigorating the political philosophy and pedagogy in order to countervail the challenges of postmodern critics regarding questioning the importance of theoretical reasoning in higher education.
It seems that the nature, scope, and constituents of the purpose of higher education have been being discussed by the governmental authorities, academic institutions administrators, and politicians since the inception of academic institutions. As Fortino (2012) says that all our liberal arts colleges with holding 200-year old history – their foci are on training the students for effective and efficient contribution via developing their persona. But nowadays, there are demands that higher education should turn their focus to making ready the students for a career. He believes that the purpose of higher education should be based on creating minds that react to any kind of strange occurrences in society. Similarly, I think, given all the social, political, and economic challenges awaiting higher education institutions to unravel them, higher education authorities should contemplate about the abovementioned challenges via revising their purposes in accordance with the needs and necessities of the society as they did for centuries.
All and all, in my mind, in the 21st century – in the era of technological explosions, entrepreneurial development, business expansion, globalization, internationalization of higher education, privatization, commercialization and corporatization of public sectors, higher education institutions significantly need to converge their main purpose on teaching creative, problem solving and critical thinking skills to student rather than just filling out their memories with some incongruous information so that they can fight with increasing gap between wealthy and indigent strata of the society in the USA, soaring competitive and tough job market, increasing unemployed degree holders, emerging quasi-automatons replacing people at factories, increasing huge intramural and extramural migration, booming population, financial crisis, students debts, and increasing degree completion retardation among the students.