Claremont, CA. The New York Times has joined a host of other publications asking the question: Is college worth it? And again, just like every time I read an article that attempts to answer this question, I want to bang my head against a wall and weep.
Let me be clear: I understand the immediate impetus for asking this question. The economy seems unstable, people are worried about spending, and colleges cost money. In this economic environment it’s not unsurprising that people are interrogating the value of college, just as they are interrogating the value of other things.
But what has me annoyed is that every time I’ve seen this question posed, people blather on and on about the relationship between a college education and future earnings. Usually we learn that yes, if you finish college you are likely to earn more money than someone who doesn’t finish college. Whoo-hoo.
Now, I’d be the first to tell you that measuring the value of college in terms of future earnings is a dubious enterprise – an enterprise that one might even argue is anathema to the American liberal-arts tradition (which has its origins in what I know is the wacky idea that the purpose of education might be something a little less individualistic and materialistic, maybe even having something to do with the spirit or the soul).
But I’ll even let all that dewey-eyed-feminine-soft-headed-head-in-the-clouds-clouded-by-the-ivory-tower stuff go for the moment. I’ll concede that argument altogether. You want to measure college education in terms of future earnings? Fine. Measure the output of college in terms of money.
I’m willing to concede that point for the moment because it doesn’t affect what’s driving me mildly insane about all these interrogations of the value of college – and plenty of other people are talking about that anyway. Because what’s driving me mildly insane about all these interrogations of the value of college is that none of them – none of them! – have had the common sense to suggest that money is not the only input into a college education, either.
The truth is that what you pay for a college education is only part of what you put into a college education, and arguably not the most important part. Call me crazy for saying this, but: how much you care about education matters, too. Like all teachers, I have students who pore over assignments and get inspired and take risks and attend extracurricular lectures and discover new skills and passions. I also have students who don’t do that so much, despite all sorts of institutional and personal encouragements to do so. There are students, in other words, who really seem to embrace a spirit of education, students who are spirited about education. And in my experience, those students who put so much of themselves into college are the ones who come out of college with more internships and fellowships and professional school acceptances and – I have to throw something all mushy and unquantifiable in here – better senses of themselves and what they have to give other people and what it means to lead a good life.
I’m not saying this because I don’t think college professors or administrators bear responsibility for what or how our students learn. We do. It’s certainly true, for instance, that smaller class sizes provide more opportunities for students to learn how to articulate themselves. It’s certainly true that giving students lots of writing assignments – and helping them to develop their ideas in writing – will at minimum enhance their communication skills. It’s certainly true that treating campus service staff well demonstrates to students that all workers are worthy of respect. And it’s certainly true that, as one of my colleagues has argued, having a vibrant arts presence on campus exposes students to the possibilities of harmony and dissonance and creativity, not to mention the value of practice and discipline. The list could go on to cover virtually every aspect of campus life; every decision we make as educators and administrators signals to our students what education is about, and how it should be pursued. We are all teaching, all the time.
So all colleges are not created alike, and similar price tags don’t denote similarly fertile educational communities. That’s something, too, that often gets left out of these commentaries about the value of college. But that strikes me as too obvious a point to belabor.
I’m saying this because I think it’s worth reminding ourselves – in a culture where it seems like money is the only input that matters – education is something that can’t merely be bought. (I emphasize the word “merely” because I am thinking of all the colleges in this country that are cutting programs and eliminating small classes because there is not enough money to pay for them.)
In the end, a college education is a process that requires an internal spirit as well as external structure — the old college try. Education is not a unidirectional enterprise; it’s an enterprise that, as Socrates demonstrated, is fully realized in dialogue among people who commit themselves deeply to the conversation. It’s our job as professors (and college adminstrators) to create conditions in which such dialogue can flourish, to practice what that old Greek guy called “the art of turning around” – the art of helping people to see the possibility of seeing more, and seeing differently. That is in some senses the entirety of our work, and it is a huge task.
But I also think we all have a broader social responsibility to remind ourselves and each other that education is not merely a consumer good, something that can be downloaded or implanted like so many silicone body parts. I worry that in all these contemporary calculations about the value of college, that truth gets pushed to the wayside. I worry that by doing this, we are, in subtle but definitive ways, encouraging our young people to be passive customers of life – not the visionaries or entrepreneurs I assume we want them to be. The more we neglect talking about the fact that education is about more than putting some money in for a diploma, the less students will know how to approach college in the first place. And the less they (and we all) will get out of it – in the tangible as well as in the intangible senses.
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education is something that can’t … be bought
Corollary: A real education is free
This is what all those ad and lobbyist dollars spent by the higher-ed racket are intended to obscure.
However, I would also like to point out that college’s themselves are as guilty as the media and our culture at trying to monetize the value of a college education. They even market themselves as such, and fight to get on that all important “Best of” list by a business publication.
Be thankful that Universities and Colleges are slow to catch up with the global outsourcing mania. The use of indentured servants (er… adjuncts) to teach the entry level courses for half the cost of a tenured prof is just the beginning of the move to harvest more money from the system.
It is only a matter of time before the tenured professor is replaced by an adjunct PhD to create the coursework and syallabus, to be used “online” and taught by a person in India for pennies on the dollar. Speaking from experience in the business world, you may even find that Indian professor to be more highly educated, and motivated than his Western counterpart. Sure, the University will still need to have a few gray bearded professors roaming campus to give the proper appearance that the helicopter Mommy’s and Daddy’s expect to see for their $50,000 / year.
I’ve have been trying to teach for almost 48 years now, and I think, if I had been able to write as well as you write when I was your age, I would have said the same things. I’ve helped to hire others who have the same passion. Thomas G. is right, of course, but I feel right good about whatever college you might be gracing with your presence.
Sadly most colleges and universities are dominated (perhaps too strong a word) by the Left. Consequently, Junior and Missy’s $100k-200k bachelor degree is predicated on a misguided ideology, although they might get a decent job.
The autodidact will spend a few thousand dollars in the price of books for the same four years and depending upon his/her determination, may be a much better “educated” person, with little hope of a ‘career.’
Pretty sad business!
You are correct in your protest but why should the Academy be immune from the constant abrading millstone of commodified America? Within this technocrat’s paradise, one’s home is a commodity while one’s avocation is a “job” designed to allow one to dabble in the commodity of one’s residence. Now, a “normal” citizen can expect to hold two mortgages…one for the house and the other for the degree, both huge sums that are increasingly becoming a Faustian Bargain for the lifelong striver.
You can ascribe much of the more loutish realities of the pursuit of a college degree to the peasant mill of Public Education….an institution that is more a baby-sitting and socialization site than a genuine center of the thrills of a life in pursuit of knowledge. I suppose that expecting it to be more than it is betrays a certain impracticality . Anything that might display an intemperate level of yearning for broader truths or demands for excellence or non-conventional wisdom is to be avoided like the plague in pursuit of creating dutiful souls intent upon “working well with others” within a fraternity of “good sportsmanship”. The leveling forces of “self esteem ” are the primary concern.
Still, the resilience of the life of the mind is revealed when our institutions of higher learning remain jammed with young people and teachers like yourself who continue an august tradition that still bears prodigious fruit, despite the cheapening quality of an expensive life. Jump into the atmosphere of a college or university and the buzz of inquiry is still palpable. Discourse still proliferates and easy answers are never sufficient. Skepticism has not quite met the same fate as Socrates.
Caleb is right, a real education is often “free” and the boosters are forever attempting to make an education….a thing that is its own reward for life …into some kind of gateway to imagined prosperity but the academy has not yet been completely overrun by Barbarians…even though the Barbarians might have some of the most plush offices within said academy.
As the undermined foundations of the current era become clearer, I expect that we will either reinvigorate the Academy and recover the lost terrain of vocation…both kinetic and intellectual…. or we will simply mine the ruins like others have done so often in the past.
Your point is well put, and interesting to me after having read the Worldbook article on Japan with my 7th-grade sister (whom I am homeschooling). One of the contrasts between Japanese higher education and American is that the Japanese put more emphasis on which college or university one attends, whereas the Americans focus more on the GPA. I don’t know which leads to a worse scenario–the Japanese, which apparently encourages students to blow off once they have attained the coveted school, or the American, which can either drive the students to insanity for the sake of a ten percent difference or else give up on the whole enterprise. I appreciate your call to dialogue and to get involved in the conversation–to pursue truth rather than compliance for the sake of good grades. Thank you for the article!
I appreciate the article. I wish there was more of this kind of discussion… in present circumstances. I have been thinking about going back to school. It is not a timely decision it seems for as soon as it is brought up in conversation, the first thing people say is “Don’t go into debt”. … Nobody said that a couple of years ago. What difference does it make if it was 2007 or 2009 that you go back to school?
Here I would like to expound. I went to a 4-year work study college so that I could graduate debt-free and did so… minus one personal loan for a couple thousand to get me through my last semester. I finally graduated in May 2003 with a BA after I got the last class I needed, which I paid for out of pocket. And I paid my loan off right away. I must add a note here that I almost quit half way through my junior year, because I was fed up with college. The enticing campus feel, the atmosphere of eager young minds, the “buzz of inquiry” and the novelty of the first couple of exciting years meeting like-minded people had begun to grow cold and wear away. The Dean of the College and a well-meaning friend in the administration who I had sought advice from, convinced me to stay, to stick it out because just having the degree would guarantee me higher pay in future employment…Now fast forward 6 years later. That has definitely not been the case. I know people who have not received a 4-year degree who make a lot of money. I am not one of them. I don’t think those people lied to me, but they overestimated or misrepresented the impact my degree would have. There are more ingredients to one’s pursuit of a career and economic success than that. And yes, it is the spirit with which it is pursued that determines the outcome. You get out what you put in. I wish I had known that at the time. I don’t know if I would have done anything differently. But that is my point. I want to do something differently now. I’d like to find something fulfilling to do with my time that will allow me to do more than just barely get the bills paid each month. I don’t want to go too far off topic. I would just like to say that I consider myself a life-long learner. I have an ideal of pursuing enriching experiences instead of just plowing through in the passive state of mind, but allow that I have succumbed to doing what is easier just for the sake of it being easier a time or two. I am currently barely scraping by economically to pursue a “free” apprenticeship of sorts. I am working two jobs and bartering for my rent so that I can spend one day per week volunteering under my mentor. Is there not a better way to do this? What are the alternatives to being spit out of the cookie cutter system with your degree and entering the rat race of 40+ hours a week only to be stressed and underpaid? I did that for about 3 of my post-college years. I spent 2 teaching and one in France, not in that order. What’s next? Anyone have any ideas? I don’t just want a more expensive piece of paper from a degree mill. I want to take something more with me. But I also don’t want to be a drain on society or to be a “passive customer of life.” But whom, what, when, why, and where is this visionary entrepreneurship, this seeking of truth, this possibility of seeing more to be found?
Hey, boys and girls, bloggers, contributors, and fellow commentators this lady needs a helping hand and she’s come here and asked us! So, I hope you guys give her a minute of your time; Susan, Pat, Caleb, D.W., James all of you.
If the Front Porch ain’t for helping our fellows then what’s it for?
Here is the website of a entrepreneurial ministry run by a man who used to attend my family’s church: http://www.newventurelab.com/
Daddy attended one of Mr. Myer’s seminars. He hasn’t had time to capitalize on any of his learning (his current job has no intention of going away), but apparently the stuff he learned was good.
Do you have a particular skill? (Is that skill the reason for the apprenticeship?) God has blessed me with an ability to sew professional-quality products, so I have had a source of spending money since I was twelve or thereabouts. Could you market something you do or make? I do agree that having something handed to you is easier–no customer base to build, no advertising, regular schedule. . . but that ease is not always good.
Another thought: if you are born again, the Spirit has given you at least one spiritual gift. What are they? In the process of finding those out (I recommend Network, by Bruce Bugbee and Don Cousins), you might find links to making a living outside of the rat race.
Sorry about the formatting–I am not a computer geek.
Your name is my middle daughter’s name, so I connect right away on some level. I’m almost three score years and ten, and sort of everybody’s grandfather; and I’ve been a teacher for forty-eight years. My sainted aunt, who counseled me through the years you are now living, used to say to me “No man worth his salt knows what he wants to do until he is at least thirty,” and “A man who isn’t a liberal sometime before the age of thirty has no heart, and if he isn’t a conservative after the age of thirty he has no brain.” She also made me repeat to her many times over that I could not make plans. A two-year plan or a five-year plan is for common people, she would say, and when she pronounced the word “common” it sounded like the most vile thing a person could be.
I kept listening. Had kids, great wife, we all grew up together, finished a Ph.D. with no debt because we were willing to work with our hands. Found the job I needed to have at the age of thirty-five just because we kept listening. Something “fulfilling?” Gosh, I see now that I could have done about a hundred things that would have been worthwhile and decent and honorable. My wife made about $20,000 worth of clothes for our three girls on a $46 sewing machine, and in our “dream home” we stripped the wallpaper in the living room because it was so ugly but we couldn’t afford to replace it for over two years.
This is not one of those “I had to walk three miles in the snow just to get to school” stories. I had them as a young kid, as everybody in my generation did. It’s rather a “listen” story. You seem to have all the right instincts. A little patience, maybe read a lot of Robert Frost, listen hard. God bless you.
The premise of the tradition of liberal education is elitism. It was designed not for the many, but for the few–for the “gentlemen” who had the freedom from material need to pursue it. The “commodification” of education is a direct result of the American democratization of eduction.
A liberal education can be a wonderful thing. I wouldn’t trade my own for the better career that I might have had if I pursued something more practical. But the problem is that, in the US, we’re so uncomfortable with admitting the reality of human differences that we think something can only be good if it is good for everyone and we attempt to sell a liberal idea of education to the masses. The result is that those who actually seek and would benefit from a liberal education (those “spirited” ones) have trouble finding something that isn’t watered down by the necessity to push everyone through the system and that those who really only want a leg up on a better career are forced to pay for a lot of stuff they don’t want and probably won’t benefit from.
So, is college worth it? For the few, as you insist, the question is simply meaningless. But for the many, I’m afraid, the answer is emphatically “no”, and it’s time we began to see that the education system’s view of itself as the answer to all ills–personal and social–is just a wee bit self-serving.
[…] Read it. But what has me annoyed is that every time I’ve seen this question posed, people blather on and on about the relationship between a college education and future earnings. Usually we learn that yes, if you finish college you are likely to earn more money than someone who doesn’t finish college. Whoo-hoo. The truth is that what you pay for a college education is only part of what you put into a college education, and arguably not the most important part. Call me crazy for saying this, but: how much you care about education matters, too. Like all teachers, I have students who pore over assignments and get inspired and take risks and attend extracurricular lectures and discover new skills and passions. I also have students who don’t do that so much, despite all sorts of institutional and personal encouragements to do so. There are students, in other words, who really seem to embrace a spirit of education, students who are spirited about education. And in my experience, those students who put so much of themselves into college are the ones who come out of college with more internships and fellowships and professional school acceptances and – I have to throw something all mushy and unquantifiable in here – better senses of themselves and what they have to give other people and what it means to lead a good life. […]
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