Higher Education

Despite my own educational background, and the fact that I’ve worked in and around higher education most of my life in varying ways, I’m skeptical of college as the must-have accessory that every young person must have.  It isn’t that college is a bad thing per se, but it may not be right for everyone.  For those with no clear idea of why they are going to college, it can be not only a financially debilitating experiment, it certainly carries ideological risks for those not prepared to have their faith challenged or even actively denigrated by the people they have been taught to revere as experts and intellectual authorities.  

My wife forwarded me this interesting critique of higher education at the universities we all have been taught to consider the cream of the crop.  He raises the important question of return on investment, and how we measure this.  It’s a question that every parent and every student needs to be able to answer for themselves before heading off to college.  How is college equipping me to be a better person, a better citizen, and a better contributor to society?  I suspect that many times, college is simply assumed to be a necessity for a better paying job.  And while this has been true in the past, and may be true now and for some time in the future, it all depends on what you define success as in a job, and what sort of job it is you actually want.  

I would take issue with Mr. Deresiewicz’s assertion that college’s primary goal is to teach you to think, and to think in some sort of unbiased manner.  I hope that once upon a time the point of college was to teach people to think, to create well-rounded people.  I hope that there are still places where this is the case.  But in many cases college has become a larger-scale vocational education system.  Electives are begrudgingly assigned and taken to fulfill requirements, not because they provide potentially valuable experiences and insights beyond one’s intended field of employment.  

There are plenty of ways to learn to think, as well.  I’d make a strong argument that if you haven’t begun learning to think pretty routinely before college, you’re in for a rude shock.  I’ve had plenty of students indignant with me for expecting things from them in history or literature classes, since these weren’t part of their major.  While there’s a certain level of apathy and laziness to most people in most situations, college should be the place where that apathy and laziness is challenged, but with the increasing shift to thinking of students as customers to be catered to (this is the assumption a lot of students have!), it makes it difficult.  

There are plenty of ways and places to learn that don’t put you tens of thousands of dollars in debt.  So unless you’re learning to think very specifically about something you can only get in college, begin thinking intentionally about alternatives.  I disagree that college is the “best” place to learn.  A lot of students (myself included) have gone through the educational system on cruise control, seeking the path of least resistance.  A college education, however, may be the best education for someone who is aggressively and intentionally seeking out a broad-based education.  

Also, I strongly object to the idea that college somehow forms a safe, objective environment to think about the world.  Instead, I think it far more honest to say that, just as once upon a time you sought out a school to study at the feet of a particular learned master, we need to realize that college is intentionally formative, intellectually and socially.  There are expectations on many campuses that are strongly enforced both implicitly and explicitly.  The choice to go to a secular or a religious institution should reflect an awareness that college is not objective.  Professors and administrators intend to shape the students that pass through their halls.  How many parents and students are aware of this?  Prepared for it?  Willing to submit themselves to that formative process?  

For a counter-essay to the one above, you can read this response from a disgruntled Yale graduate.  Both writers paint with broad brushes.  Neither one addresses specifically what the purpose of college is (or should be), and whether that purpose merits going into potentially life-long debt for.  Each in their own way assumes that the answer is ‘yes’, and the issue is just a matter of where.  I suspect that in our changing economy, with a resurgence of interest in entrepreneurial opportunity and undertaking (even as local laws make this harder and harder in many cases), more and more often it might be that college isn’t the next logical step in life for someone.

Begin talking about this with your kids when they’re young.  Start figuring out what it is that they’re good at, what they enjoy doing, and talking about potential paths that would allow them to build on those strengths and interests.  If that includes college-education, then start talking about where and why.  If it doesn’t necessarily require a college degree, start investigating what sorts of experiences or alternative learning options would be of benefit.  Don’t assume that college is the only route for your son or daughter.  

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