Education’s Lost Citizenship (Repost from the New Existentialists)

Tag: Teaching

This blog by Louis Hoffman, PhD, was originally published on the New Existentialists website: It is reposted here in its entirety.

Anyone in higher education today knows that the field is drastically changing. Nervous academics and administrators are engaging in intense debate regarding the causes of the problems and scrambling to find solutions before they become imposed upon the academy by accreditation bodies. It is evident that a myriad of factors contributed to the current state of education. I will focus on a few important contributing factors and their role in one of the most substantial sacrifices being made in higher education today: the preparation for citizenship.

Historically, education was about much more than preparing the student for successful employment. Education was about preparing students to be good citizens of their country, the world, and their professional community. With all the public debate about education today, rarely does the idea of citizenship enter the conversation. I worry that if we prepare individuals to be successful in their careers without preparing them to be successful in their roles as citizens that we are moving toward a period of moral and ethical crisis.

Reasons for the Loss of Citizenship

I would like to begin with a brief analysis of some of what prompted the changes in education. First, the economic recession has played an important role in focusing education on a cost-benefit analysis of education defined in purely economic terms. Listening to students share their fears about their ever-increasing debt, I am quite sympathetic with this issue. Institutions of higher education need to be responsible and accountable for the product they are offering, especially with the rising costs of education. My concern is that this reality has caused a shift toward focusing solely on the economic aspects of education while forgetting citizenship.

Second, the changing landscape of higher education with the emergence of the for-profit schools has led to a cry for greater accountability. While not all for-profit schools are bad, it is evident that a significant number of them have been exploiting students and the education system. The media has focused on a number of issues with these for-profit institutions including high tuition rates, high levels of attrition, high default rates on student loans, poor placement rates, and a poor quality of education. However, a number of other issues are often ignored. For instance, the for-profit schools often spend an exorbitant amount of money on advertising. Traditional schools, in response, have needed to spend more money on advertising to compete with the very aggressive marketing and recruitment techniques of these for-profit schools. Many higher education institutions are increasing marketing budgets and personnel while decreasing funding spent on academics, faculty salaries, and faculty development. Faculty struggle with increased workloads, decreased professional development funds, decreased job security, and decreasing support staff and resources while having higher expectations placed upon them. Obviously, this is not a context that helps faculty thrive at teaching and mentoring.

Third, I would be remiss not to mention the impingement of capitalism into education, which also has been influenced by the for-profit model becoming more prominent. When education becomes another cog in a capitalist machine, a degree becomes a product that is purchased. Students become consumers, and the ethos of the institutions becomes one of customer service. This sounds nice until we consider the implications. The customer support model values students because they are important for the financial security of the institution and job security, not because they are fellow citizens being mentored into a professional community. Faculty and administrators want to keep students happy and satisfied because of what they offer to the institution economically, not because they are respected as human beings. A degree is a product bought, not a privilege earned. In the end, the intrusion of capitalism into education often turns students into objects and degrees into products, both of which leave little room for the idea of citizenship.

Fourth, many changes in accreditation have been implemented with the threat of more coming. Two important factors are particularly relevant here. First, the exploitations of certain for-profit schools, sometimes labeled as the “bad players,” has led to pressure on accrediting institutions to call for greater accountability. Second, the emergence of online education has changed how education is implemented, even when the primary medium is the traditional classroom. Accrediting bodies now must consider what this means for education. As accrediting bodies respond to the challenges of the “bad players” while considering the dire job market and increasing levels of student loans, they have focused in on career advancement and increased salaries, leaving out citizenship.

Fifth, in many fields, the breadth of what is needed to be a generalist is ever-expanding, restricting any room for the liberal arts and critical thinking. Educators are under increasing pressure to make sure students accumulate a breadth of knowledge without consideration of their ability to think about this knowledge or use it in a responsible manner. As a graduate instructor, I am frequently amazed at the stories students share about how they have been discouraged from critical thinking or even integrating their own ideas. For instance, often students are discouraged from integrating their ideas into scholarly papers and, instead, are pushed to make sure that they focus on the ideas of “appropriately vetted scholars.” The implicit message is that students with their fresh perspectives do not have anything of substance to offer, at least not until they have been appropriately cultured to think like everyone else.

Similarly, a role of the liberal arts and humanities was to place knowledge in the context of citizenship, or who we are beyond our professional identities. The liberal arts connected us to the meaning level of existence and to social ethics. Too often, this is reduced with learning an ethics code in today’s educational system.

Citizenship and Psychology

The field of psychology ought be particularly concerned as these forces uniquely impact it. The accreditation requirements of the American Psychological Association (APA) for doctoral programs in psychology and internships are increasingly full, allowing for little room for variation. As part of this, students have little room to pursue their own interests until after they graduate. APA justifies this saying its accreditation is for generalists, and their requirements are the knowledge needed to be a generalist psychologist. Yet, in reality a significant percentage of psychologists do not utilize many of APA’s requirements because they are not relevant to what they are doing professionally. Similarly, this restrictive understanding of what it means to be a generalist does not meet the needs of the consumers of mental health who come from various backgrounds with a diverse set of values and expectations of what they want when seeking assistance from mental health professionals. APA, through its narrow focus in training, is essentially dictating what consumers ought to want from mental health professionals, not preparing psychologists to meet the diverse values and needs of the citizens who come to them.

Professional psychology is also the field that, at the doctorate level, is being heavily influenced by for-profit institutions. While, again, not all for-profit institutions are bad, this has a negative influence on the reputation of professional psychology and potentially may have a negative impact on the quality of education students are receiving. Mental health has always had a precarious relationship within the broader health field and does not need additional reasons to question its credibility.


Existential psychology is interested in a holistic understanding of the individual in the context of community. Furthermore, existential psychology has always had an interest in the ethical dimensions of being human. In today’s educational system, there is a great need for an existential critique, but it must not stop here. We need to have a voice in identifying solutions and addressing the current problems in a constructive manner. Right now, most critically, we need to provide a voice advocating for the protection and restoration of citizenship in education.

Higher education is moving in a direction that removes the person from educational process. Instead, people are being trained to function much like machines in a complex system—without critical thought, without creativity, without soul. People are being trained to be professionals without preparations to be citizens in the world in which they serve as professionals. This is a dangerous reality. The fight to restore citizenship in education is really a fight to restore humanity in education.

The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called ‘truth.’

— Dan Rather