4 April 2012
The basic difficulty that most of these articles point to is twofold: the cost of a college education is ballooning, while the value of a college degree—in both economic and intellectual terms—is cratering.
On these two points, there is a consensus, and I won’t rehearse the data here.
What I want to do instead is challenge the framework of the debate by considering the question: What is a college education for?
First, though, I want to review two interesting short essays on this subject that have come to my attention in recent weeks.
In an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Should Working-Class People Get B.A.’s and Ph.D.’s?,” two sisters have written of their personal experiences.
The sisters are from a working-class family. Their father is a construction worker and their mother is a licensed practical nurse. Both sisters are highly intelligent and did very well in high school.
The older sister struggled financially to obtain a Ph.D. in English from Princteon, and is now employed as a lecturer at Yale. She has career prospects that are uncertain at best, and is now saddled with a heavy monthly burden of debt repayments.
The younger sister, chastened by her older sister’s example, decided to forgo sizable but still-inadequate scholarships she was offered by several prestigious schools in favor of living at home and taking classes at the local community college. Due to some bad advice, she enrolled for freshman courses she ought to have placed out of, and feels ill-used by the system. She has dropped out of school and is now working full-time in a bakery for near the minimum wage.
What should we make of these two personal stories, which are undoubtedly representative of the experiences of many? There is much to say, but before turning to analysis, I would like to bring in an entirely different perspective on the purpose of higher education.
In another fascinating essay—this one from The New York Times, entitled “Education’s Hungry Hearts“—a distinguished Professor of English at the University of Virginia named Mark Edmundson points to a feature of the overall picture not touched on directly in the preceding article.
Here is what Professor Edmundson has to say:
There’s been a lot of talk lately about who should go to college and who should not. And the terms that have guided this talk have mainly been economic. Is college a good investment? Does it pay for a guy who is probably going to become a car mechanic to spend $20,000 to $30,000 going to a junior college for a couple of years? (I’m including the cost of room and board here.) He’s probably going to leave with a pile of debt that will take him years to work off. What’s more, the current thinking goes, he didn’t need that associate degree to end up with his job in the garage. Something similar is true for the young person who is going to become a flight attendant, a home health care aide, a limo driver or a personal security guard. It’s not a good investment, we’re told. It’s not the right way to spend your dough.
The implication here is that paying for college is like putting money into a set of stocks or a mutual fund. It’s an investment. If the money spent on college doesn’t result in an actual cash advantage, then you’ve made a mistake. If you end up not needing a college degree to pursue your professional life at all, then school was more than a strategic mistake: it was a complete waste. They saw you coming. You got yourself taken.
All of this may be true, but it’s true only for those students who showed up at college without the attribute Bruce Springsteen sings about (and in his way celebrates): a hungry heart. For kids who aren’t curious, alive and hungry to learn, going to college and then moving on to a job they could have had anyway is no doubt ill advised. But that’s not everyone. There are plenty of young people out there who will end up in jobs that don’t demand college degrees: yet college is still right for them.
Thirty-five years of teaching has taught me this: The best students and the ones who get the most out of their educations are the ones who come to school with the most energy to learn. And—here’s an important corollary—those students are not always the most intellectually gifted. They’re not always the best prepared or the most cultured. Sometimes they think slowly. Sometimes they don’t write terribly well, at least at the start. What distinguishes them is that they take their lives seriously and they want to figure out how to live them better. These are the kids for whom one is bought and sold. These are the ones who make you smile when they walk into your office.
How do they get this way? Why is it that some young people, often young people who have not had remarkable advantages, are so alive? They’re an amazing pleasure to teach even if their subject-verb agreement isn’t always what it might be and they don’t know what iambic pentameter is. I can teach them those things. What’s way harder to teach—maybe it’s impossible—is the love for learning and the openness to experience that these students bring to the seminar table.
Professor Edmundson’s essay provides a necessary corrective to that by the two sisters. It reminds us that the social origins of higher education—the traditional rationale for its existence—lay not in providing economic opportunity to one and all, but rather in the twofold task of perpetuating a cultural tradition deemed to be of inestimable worth, and of providing access to that tradition to the small minority of the population with both the ability and the inclination to undertake the strenuous effort and self-discipline necessary to attain such access.
It is no accident that the university in the West has its roots in the monastic traditions of the Catholic Church. Real learning presupposes a religious-like attitude towards the slowly and painfully accumulated fund of human knowledge. A genuine scholar enters voluntarily upon a semi-monastic spiritual quest that is best described as “sacred.”
Scholars, too, have to eat, of course, but nobody lacking a spiritual calling to the life of learning has any business embarking upon a higher degree, at least in the humanities. A hungry heart is a prerequisite for the Ph.D. as surely as any course in the catalogue.
One of the most terrible consequences of the course we are now embarked upon—and one that is too little remarked upon—is that it imperils this sacred dimension of the university’s raison d’être. Part of the reason for this is the desacralization of everything by our increasingly materialistic and scientistic culture. When the human person is reduced to a mere bundle of genes and synapses, it is not surprising that the most elevated sustenance for the human spirit accumulated over centuries should be degraded to the status of a commodity.
But there is another reason for the undermining of the university’s sacred trust, as well—one which derives from a seemingly more benign political and even moral impulse. Namely, the dumbing down of the curriculum is the inevitable result of the effort to turn higher education into a product suitable for mass consumption.
In a phrase, there is an inherent tension between the traditional aims of higher education and the ideals of a democratic society.
To think productively about this problem, we must clearly distinguish between two separate aims of higher education.
One such aim, as we have seen, is what I am calling the “sacred trust”—the passing on of the Great Tradition of learning in the West (and indeed, throughout the world) to a new generation. Therefore, part of what it means to democratize higher education must be to find ways to make it more easily accessible to those with truly hungry hearts.
But, as we all know, in recent decades higher education in this country has been acquiring an entirely different aim besides the traditional one of perpetuating the sacred trust of learning. A college degree is now considered, first and foremost, a vehicle for social and economic advancement.
At first glance, this, too, is a highly laudable aim. But like a number of other seemingly laudable aims, it does not bear up under close scrutiny.
It might seem that the only difficulty raised by this newer trend is the question of the extent to which the two aims of higher education can be reconciled. And that is certainly a very important question, if we are not to lose sight of the earlier aim of the sacred trust altogether.
But there is another difficulty with the concept of higher education as a guarantor of American democracy: It is impracticable, even on its own terms.
The trouble here is that not everyone can be a highly paid college professor—or doctor, or lawyer, or engineer. Even in a democracy, all people do not have either the same skills or the same interests and inclinations. Therefore, it is unrealistic to expect them all to occupy the same social or economic rung in society.
Admittedly, the Occupy Wall Street protesters, as well as most liberal pundits in the media, appear to disagree with my last claim. Therefore, I must take a moment to belabor the obvious.
No one, rich or poor, wants to part with what he’s got. Small donations to charity aside, people simply are not much disposed to share what they have with strangers, and cannot be counted on to do so voluntarily.
Human beings are not natural communists. To behave in a communistic manner, we require a gun pointed at our heads. Therefore, the only way to achieve economic equality—given both the natural possessiveness of human beings and their natural inequality—is through totalitarianism.
But to say that economic equality is an unrealistic goal is not to say that a decent life for all is also unrealistic. Because the natural inequality of skills and interests by no means implies that all human beings do not possess the same inherent worth—or, to use the philosopher’s term of art, dignity—and are not entitled to equal respect.
This equal dignity and respect has two components, one ideological and one material.
The ideological component consists in the recognition that there is dignity in all labor well performed. We have to stop behaving collectively as though we believed the only measure of a human being’s worth was the size of his bank account. Citizens of a democracy ought to understand better than anyone that this is a slander upon mankind. Virtue and vice have no inherent relation whatsoever to social or economic standing.
But while man lives not by bread alone, he does require bread to live. This means that a decent concern for our neighbor’s welfare also has a material component.
Let us not mince words. No conservative, I hope, wants to return to a Dickensian world of direst filth, neglect, pestilence, and want—like the slum known as “Tom-all-alone’s” in Bleak House. The suffering of the least of us is the concern of all of us: I take this to be a basic moral precept of any decent society.
The question is not whether we are our brother’s keeper—we surely are. The question is how best to organize a post-industrial, information-based society so that those with little inclination towards book learning may still be afforded the opportunity to acquire the skills necessary to lead a decent and independent life.
To achieve this end, several things have got to happen:
- The rhetoric of the left has got to change. No more stupid talk of the “1%,” no more harping on “inequality” as if it were not inevitable, and no more talk of “rights” in the abstract, detached from responsibilities. Rather, we must put our heads together to figure out what sort of public education system can best provide the skill sets required by the global economy, what sort of industrial policy can level the playing field for American companies without stifling innovation, and what sort of safety net is required for the least among us, without fostering dependency and consequent loss of self-respect.
- We must recognize that not everyone can or should go to college. To continue to pretend otherwise can only lead to the proliferation of colleges that are disguised high schools, and poor ones at that. This means we must find better ways of educating the large numbers of people with no aptitude for, or interest in, book learning, for the manual trades that are still needed. This will require a major investment in vocational-technical high schools and colleges, which have been allowed to fall into disrepair. This also means that some form of tracking will be required in the public school system. However, a sensible public education system with various career tracks in no way implies a diminution in commitment to democracy or a disrespect for the inherent worth of every human being. A change of attitude on all our parts towards the dignity of manual labor is a necessary concomitant of our collective recognition that higher education is just not for everyone.
- In between those with a monastic-like devotion to learning and those with no business going to college at all, there is a third group of young people—the largest one—who are capable of doing college work but look upon it in purely pragmatic terms. They are mostly studying math and science, or else are enrolled in the “professional” schools of medicine, law, business, engineering, and education. These students are the ones best served by the present system, but even here there has been a steady erosion in the concept of professionalism. The crisis in higher education is a reflection of a spiritual crisis in American society as a whole, and a return to the traditional values of professionalism is another requirement for saving both our universities and our society.
Let me expand on this last point.
A professional is someone who is well paid for his expertise and for the time and expense he has invested in his education, but whose attitude towards his career is not wholly governed by considerations of material reward.
A professional is someone of whom society expects a certain higher attitude towards his career—namely, that he be willing, when the occasion demands, to set aside his own personal gain for the good of his calling, his clients, and society at large.
The decline of professionalism is part and parcel of the demise of any moral values generally recognized by all Americans, apart from material success.
The crisis in higher education is only one symptom of this general trend. The most sought-after professors, who once would have been content with the esteem of their peers and enough material ease to facilitate a life of the mind, now demand salaries to support sybaritic lifestyles more suitable to basketball stars, while administrators lure students with a physical plant not primarily calculated—to put it delicately—for the improvement of their minds.
Driving everything is the lure of riches in the form of tax dollars—principally via the conduits of federally financed scientific research and federally subsidized student loans.
This situation has created an unsustainable economic bubble in higher education. Neither the students indenturing themselves to a lifetime of debt service, nor the taxpayers, can afford to keep the game going much longer.
A return to the traditional model in the professions would help to mitigate all these negative trends in higher education. But beyond that, it would help to restore the virtues of caring and self-sacrifice to our society as a whole.
Ultimately, the crisis in higher education cannot be divorced from the crisis in American democracy itself. Both crises are fundamentally moral and spiritual in nature, and a fundamental change of heart is required to effect any change of policies which can hope to address the deep-seated problems that threaten our well-being, both as individual citizens and as a nation.