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Academic Ideals
July/August 2012

When Plato established his Academy in Athens in 387 BC, he laid a foundation for education in the West that regarded knowledge as inseparable from character. In the end, he said, a man's intellect or cleverness or skills couldn't help him if he lacked virtue. "A person with a bad soul will govern his life badly."

This Western ideal is worth recalling now, as more governments struggle to manage the costs of higher education. It has become a major issue during the US election season, as worries mount about escalating tuition fees and student debt to cover them. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 75 per cent of adults think higher education has become unaffordable — and most believe it's not worth the money.

Liberals see a "student loan crisis" and denounce cuts in government spending on education. Newspapers such as the New York Times blame for-profit colleges for "defrauding" students with deceptive recruitment policies. Conservatives, for their part, criticise the expansion of federal loan programmes for encouraging inflated tuition rates and student indebtedness. 

Mostly missing from the discussion, however, is meaningful talk about the fundamental purposes of higher education and how best to achieve them.

So far, conservatives are not contributing much to this debate. Too many have focused narrowly on costs, techniques, and new technologies. Writing in National Affairs, the Heritage Foundation's Stuart Butler lauds the arrival of online degree courses as the saviour of higher education. He writes: "Improvements in customised and sophisticated student-education data . . . make it easy to imagine the interaction quality of online tutorials surpassing the effectiveness of the traditional system." We are assured that nothing of enduring value would be lost in this brave new virtual world.

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