First Principles

Four questions that will allow us to avoid churn.

There’s a lot of churn at the college executive level, as schools try to figure out which programs to bolster and which to trim away, what kinds of student support are essential and which could be expanded even further. And although the questions to those should be informed by data, I think that they can’t be determined by data. Those questions, and hundreds of others, are ultimately expressions of values. And without expressly naming those values, we run the danger of building incoherence, of building a college at cross purposes with itself as one unit goes one way and another unit stands in opposition.

I’d like to name four core questions that any college (or really, schools at all levels) should deliberate carefully, and come to at least some tenuous collective agreement upon. The collective answers to these questions will, I believe, deliver some first principles that almost all other decisions can stand upon.

Question One: Who owns children? That is, are educators in the business of serving parents? Or serving the state’s department of labor? Or serving a leading local employer? Or serving God, as you imagine him or her or it to be? Or serving students themselves? Whose proxy is a school voting? On whose basis do we act?

Question Two: Are people fundamentally individuals, deserving rights? Or are we fundamentally members of a community, fulfilling responsibilities? Are we in service to individual or collective goals?

Question Three: What should all humans do before they die? What are the irreplaceable elements of a well-lived life?

Question Four: Is education primarily in preparation for, or primarily an experience of? Is it an investment, or a worthy period of life on its own?

None of the answers to any of these questions are right or wrong. But they will be absolutely distinct, and lead us in absolutely different directions of daily action. And like good social science questions, they are independent of one another: the answer to one does not determine the answer to the rest. So if we imagine that each question has n responses, then this simple array of questions will lead us to n to the fourth kinds of colleges, and they will look remarkably different from one another.