A Western Washington University professor argued that colleges need to change in a Zoom presentation last Thursday.

Dr. Johann Neem argued that policy makers, business leaders and administrators have perverted colleges into technical schools in the name of accessibility and cost-cutting. Those same institutions have then taught kids that, in order to be more successful than their parents, they need a college degree.

Neem is the author of “What's the Point of College? Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform.” His presentation sought to answer the same question, but started by saying what isn’t the point of college. Neem said that college shouldn’t be about learning how to be a functioning adult.

“The purpose of [a] college education, is actually to take people out of the real world and place them on campuses devoted to learning as the highest ideal,” Neem said.

Johann Neem Lecture 01

He said that scholarly pursuits such as history should be housed in separate places than what he would call technical ones such as business, but he said there is nothing wrong with a college student who later gets a technical degree or vice versa.

Neem then railed against the idea of “critical thinking,” a buzz word which he said has been misused and abused. He argued that critical thinking is defined as a way to gather knowledge, but is in fact a way to interpret knowledge and answer questions.

“One has to know things to answer things,” he said. “We learn to think through what we study.”

To prove his point, Neem used the example of climate change. When asked why climate change is happening, a chemist will answer differently than a politician. He said that this isn’t because one thinks about the situation less critically. Rather, the chemist and the politician draw on different background knowledge.

Neem said that colleges should care about what students think critically about, and leave caring about whether students can think critically to employers.

He then pivoted to an argument about the cost of higher education, an issue which he said is exaggerated. While he acknowledged rising tuition costs and student debt, he said that most college graduates are able to pay for those debts. He also said that those issues could easily be solved by more public monetary support for universities.

Data from the New York Federal Reserve Center for Microeconomics shows that in the second quarter of 2020, Americans owed over $1.5 trillion in student loans. That’s more than twice what they owed in 2010. Meanwhile, median weekly earnings have increased by 25% for college graduates over the same period according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

He then leveraged that argument to say that more public support would mean a better education for students.

“By making college more expensive and privatizing the cost,” Neem said, “we have limited the student’s freedom to engage in the liberal arts and sciences.”