Conflicting Tasks

The social functions of higher education — primarily, accreditation/qualification (on one hand) and instruction/formation (on the other) — balance precariously, if at all. When one begins thinking of universities principally as a system for accrediting qualification, an interest in genuine learning and formation tends to fall by the wayside: “You need to know this and only this, and then you’re qualified.” But if universities exist primarily to warrant qualification, why do they entail so many required preliminary tasks? Why can’t I (for instance) obtain instantly a bachelor’s degree in theology? I’m not less qualified for it than is one a typical undergraduate. There must be more to university higher education than just attesting that a particular person has accomplished the necessary steps for qualifying as a “graduate” relative to a particular program.
This comes to mind because, in straitened times, some politicians and even academics begin looking for ways to pare away “unnecessary” elements of higher education (this comes up often in arguments about distance education). I agree that it needn’t be the case that every university foster the kind of intellectual odysseys that require a certain kind of cognitive tracklessness; I’m not suggesting that every institution ought to be modelled on an Oxbridgean ideal, or that an intense program in engineering (for instance) wasn’t truly a baccalaureate degree but only a (make sneering tone) “technical” degree. But I do think it’s worth distinguishing different flavours and approaches, and perhaps even to distinguish different sorts of degree, in order more honestly to communicate what a degree is asserting about a graduate.

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