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‘Saturday Night Live,’ Floor Wax, and the Life of the Mind

“New Shimmer is a floor wax,” declared the late comic Gilda Radner in a classic 1976 ad parody on “Saturday Night Live.” “No, new Shimmer is a dessert topping!” Dan Aykroyd responded. Things soon degenerated, as the two wrestled over a Shimmer spray can. “It’s a floor wax, I’m telling you!” Radner insisted. “It’s a dessert topping, you cow!” Aykroyd shot back. Then Chevy Chase strolled into the kitchen where the fight was taking place to make peace. “Calm down, you two!” he proclaimed. “New Shimmer’s a floor wax and a dessert topping!”

I thought of this sketch when I read two pieces recently that question what the authors fear is a growing view of university education as primarily about achieving practical results, for individuals and for economies. Harvard President Drew Faust, in an article for Times Higher Education (adapted from a June 2010 speech at Trinity College Dublin), writes:

When we define higher-education’s role principally as driving economic development and solving society’s most urgent problems, we risk losing sight of the kinds of inquiry the enable the critical stance, that build the humane perspective, that foster the restless skepticism and unbounded curiosity from which our profoundest understandings so often emerge. …An overly instrumental model of the university misses the genius of its capacity.

My fellow Chronicle bloggers Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson wrote a post along the same lines this week, following their own visit to Trinity College Dublin (where something in the water, or perhaps the Guinness, must inspire such thoughts in American visitors). The important goal of improving college access and labor-market credentials for those with otherwise limited prospects, they contended:

should not make us forget about the importance of intellectual engagement and of liberal education. For some people, getting quickly through programs that provide solid labor market credentials is by far the best strategy. But too often discussions of this goal seem to imply that longer, more in-depth, more abstract courses of study are a waste of time, represent pure extravagant consumption, or are an anachronism.

After reading these thoughtful pieces, I found myself wondering whether I had fallen into this trap myself in my writing about the promise the fast-growing global academic marketplace holds for innovation and economic growth. I hope not. There’s little doubt, naysayers notwithstanding, that building human capital greatly improves an individual’s economic prospects. Ditto for entire economies. So it is not surprising that many nations are trying hard to broaden access to postsecondary education and to improve the quality, and often the quantity, of their universities. That makes good sense.

At the same time, pursuing ideas is quite compatible with pursuing economic progress. As Yale President Richard Levin often points out, it’s noteworthy that Asian nations, admired and sometimes feared by the West for their fast-growing academic and economic attainment, are showing great interest in U.S.-style liberal arts education. As evidenced by the proposed Yale-National University of Singapore partnership, Asian fans of the liberal arts believe that such studies create precisely the habits of mind that innovators need to be successful. That’s just one example of how the quest for economic progress through universities doesn’t mean that critical thinking and seeking knowledge for its own sake need be devalued.

Indeed, Faust concludes her piece by suggesting that universities can and should proceed on the two fronts simultaneously: “Combine innovation and interpretation,” she writes. “We need the best of both.” She’s right. I don’t think we have to choose between a vision of universities as instrumental to economic growth and one in which they are seen as places devoted to the life of the mind. Can’t a university be a floor wax and a dessert topping?

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