Higher Education and Its Role In Finding Meaning with Molly Worthen

Spread the love

What is the state of higher education today? Do today’s college students have the luxury to study life’s meaning and purpose? Or, are universities and institutes of higher education focusing more on professional skills and salary potential?

Molly Worthen, associate professor of history at University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, thinks there is a problem with our current higher educational system.

She believes that in recent years, universities have not been able to properly guide students to ask and answer the big questions. Molly believes that they’ve lost their original mission.

Her article, The Anti-College Is on the Rise, breaks down the failures of higher education. It highlights how some students, teachers and others are pushing for change. That article inspired Lynne Golodner to invite Molly to be a guest on the Make Meaning Podcast to discuss the role of Higher Ed today.

Higher Education: Then and Now

Molly Worthen is a journalist and a professor of American religion. She has spent her career researching and writing about North American religious and intellectual history. 

“I was interested in some of these really brave activists, who were striking out on their own and trying to tackle some of these challenges and problems,” she told Lynne Golodner on the 59th Episode of the Make Meaning Podcast.

According to Molly, certain aspects of higher education have failed students. Among them are the “astronomical cost of higher education, and the failure of so many students to find ways to ask and answer deep questions about life’s purpose.”

Molly attended the University of Michigan and graduated in 1993, the same year Lynne also graduated from Michigan. She loved her time as a collage student. Molly believes her experience allowed her to not only take classes but really explore new ideas and thoughts.

She told Lynne on the podcast, “I came away with this assumption that a college education is an opportunity to develop who you are.”

But all that has changed in the decades since she attended university. Now, Molly thinks the problem lies in “the failure of universities to forgo the central questions about life’s purpose and helping students think in a big, deep way about their place in the big picture.”

The Crisis of Confidence in the Humanities

According to Molly, the intense focus on professional skills and salary potential means that students are losing the opportunity to just learn, think and discover. 

The rising cost in tuition has caused students to feel pressure to take more practical classes. They then “leave aside the classes that may foster the big question-asking,” she said.

Molly also believes the trend away from the humanities in favor of more practical classes is detrimental to students in their eventual careers. You have to know who you are and have a purpose guiding your work if you want to be effective in any field.


On the podcast she told Lynne: “I hear all the time from friends in other professions, in the business world and in law firms. During the hiring process, it turns out that the most valuable skills are not, have you mastered this most recent version of trendy software, but rather, can you write, can you think in a straight line? Can you pull ideas together? Can you find evidence and make sense of it and communicate it to other people? These are the skills that you learn in the humanities.”

Finding Meaning in Higher Education

On the Make Meaning Podcast, Molly said she believes that meaning in higher education comes from “having the opportunity to just wander and explore and ask and debate.” Without these opportunities, “we’re really missing out on something very deep in our intellectual landscape.”

More and more people are looking for ways to find meaning through education, and this gives Molly hope.

There are dozens of programs popping up around the country to help students connect to their inner purpose. These programs range from gap years combining education with world travel to service programs. For instance, the philosophy-based, Alaskan program Outer Coast. This program seeks to cultivate a love for community and respect for nature within the setting of Sitka, Alaska.

These are opportunities to reclaim and reshape higher ed. They can be an example to the rest of the educational sphere.

Molly believes the pushback that universities and colleges are receiving could be a catalyst for meaningful change.

As she writes in the New York Times, “Perhaps the proliferation of programs like these will push mainstream universities to recover the moral component of their mission, and to recognize that what students need — far more than gourmet dining hall food or fancier classroom technology — is a period of discipleship, a time of discernment. They crave a means to figure out how to do what we all desperately want: to submit to a community and an ideal larger than ourselves, without losing ourselves entirely.”

Listen to the episode of the Make Meaning podcast here

Read Molly’s article in the New York Times here