The old maxim, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well,” is difficult to dispute. Why should anyone expend time and energy to undertake a pursuit deemed to be worthwhile if the goal was not to do well?

In Greek, the word telos means a goal or an end. When applied to the idea in the previous paragraph, we can say that anything worth doing must have a telos – an end or goal in mind. The telos of this essay is to make the point that higher education needs its own telos.

What, then, is the telos of higher education?

There are two fundamental schools of thought. One argues that higher education should prepare students for the professional world. These proponents advocate for job training and experience, and are influenced by the demands of the present economic climate, as well as by its theorized future needs. Of course, in a world caught up in such rapid and violent cycles of reinvention, who can really predict what the needs of any future economy will be?

In the other camp are those who hold firm to the traditional view of higher education as a place for the further cultivation of minds eager to pursue truth and knowledge for the benefit of mankind. In the interests of full disclosure, I am one such advocate. Our universities, known now as “higher education,” were once the places where those most concerned with answering the questions posed by the human condition would go to engage themselves.

While this does still happen in our universities, its prominence has been undeniably reduced. The term “Higher education” contains two words – “higher” and “education.” We know what the latter means, but what to make of the former? What is meant by “higher”? What passes for “higher” education today is little more than glorified training in top-tier trades. Our students learn how to interview for entry-level positions at consulting firms; they perfect their skills in accounting, computers, and engineering; they learn how to lead classrooms and how best to teach math to school children.

This is not higher education. This is an aggregated vocational school. Students attend these schools in order to develop the skills and knowledge to perform in their chosen professions upon graduation. There is nothing wrong with this. Please do not think I am disparaging teachers, accountants, doctors, or anyone else. They all have to go somewhere to learn the necessary functions of their respective professions. I am only arguing that this does not constitute higher education. This is, rather, continued education, which is superlative. We need doctors and teachers, and we need them to be the best in their fields. Any education that aims solely to endow the student body with a particular set of professional skills, however, constitutes a vocational school. Requiring a doctor-to-be to take an American History class does not constitute higher education.

Dr. Bradley Birzer, co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative, states in an essay titled Minerva University vs. Liberal Learning, “We [academics] have, in a sense, allowed for a world that can no longer understand that education is not training, or time serving, or earning a job certificate – that it is a means of leisure by which a person discovers and enlivens his very humanity.”

To come back to the original question, the purpose of higher education is to enrich and enliven the individual – to broaden his understanding of himself and the world around him, to provide him the accumulated wisdom of the ages. In short, it is to pursue truth.

The root of the word “university” is the noun universus, meaning “all turned into one.” A university, therefore, is where people go to learn everything. Such was the case when academic pursuits were narrowed to the philosophic and mathematic. However, in the time when the university was just beginning to come into existence, there still existed business and commerce. How, then, did those involved in business and commerce learn their professions? They learned, simply, by participation. A blacksmith didn’t need to attend lectures and debates at Aristotle’s Lyceum in order to learn how to blacksmith. All he had to do was to go to a blacksmith and learn how to forge steel.

Our universities have since become the place to learn all things. A look at the course offerings of most major universities will reveal a host of courses that may strike the reader as out of place, but this is the new university. Case in point, I recently saw that an acquaintance of mine from college is getting his Ph.D. in “Leadership Studies.” The description for his particular program is as follows:

        “The Ph.D. in Leadership Studies is a 60-hour research doctorate program designed to develop and enhance competencies in order to equip servant leaders for the twenty-first century.”

It is a little understood fact that before the modern era, there were no leaders. Evidently, all of mankind was wandering around in darkness waiting for someone to take the lead. Luckily, we now have Ph.D. programs which teach leadership (side note: does anyone appreciate the irony of formal instruction in leadership?).

Never was the intent of higher education to become what it now represents, which may explain why the academy has so many faults at present. Where it was once the period in the lives of the most intellectually and philosophically curious to learn about the world around them, it is now the obligatory step so begrudgingly taken by 30 percent of Americans in the hopes of landing a decent job thereafter. Granted, the world is a far different place than it was in the time of Aristotle, and the university has adapted accordingly, but in the process, our system has become all things to all people.

Perhaps a return to higher education providing truly higher education, coupled with a stronger emphasis on vocational schools – business, medical, educational, etc. – would benefit society as a whole through allowing young people to concentrate more on honing their respective crafts. This would require a K-12 shakeup nationwide, as there would need to be a stronger emphasis placed on the traditional components of a liberal education. We must know who we are, after all, in order to truly understand where we want to go.

It would seem that for modern higher education, there is no telos.