More than two-thirds of American high school graduates enroll in some program of higher education. What do they want from college and what should they want from college? Those are two different, infrequently asked questions.
In a recent essay entitled “Why Go to College?” Mark Henrie, Vice President for Academic Affairs at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, addressed that question. It is worth reading and pondering. Henrie’s essay is in the Spring 2008 issue of The Canon, available here.
The first of the two questions is really quite easy to answer. The great majority of young Americans go to college because they’ve been led to believe that having a college degree of some kind is a necessity if they’re to have a prosperous career. Even though there are some extraordinarily successful people in the business world who never earned college degrees, it’s generally assumed that most of the doors leading to success are locked to people who haven’t signaled their abilities by getting a degree.
Henrie regrets that this is the case, writing, “For if the primary end of higher education were merely the acquisition of the skills necessary for success in our particular economic system, then would we not better occupy the years of early adulthood in some form of technical school?”
In truth, many colleges and universities cater to students on that basis, offering, for example, programs in hotel and restaurant management that supposedly give them a leg up on kids who try to get into this field with only a high school diploma. It’s wasteful to go through four or more years of college just for that. Students who only want their degree for that reason are apt to see all the “other stuff” they’re obliged to take as an annoyance. Back in my own teaching days, I knew a lot of students like that.
Many other young Americans go to college simply because they want to have “the college experience.” That experience consists chiefly of meeting other people, enjoying life away from home for the first time, going to plenty of parties and sports events, and so forth. It’s a very expensive post-high school gift that most affluent families want to give their children. But, Henrie says, “It is quite difficult to see how such an ‘experience’ amounts to a particularly good preparation for the responsibilities of adulthood.”
Good point. In fact, many colleges are so intent on keeping their students (or, as a friend who teaches economics at a small college calls them, “tuitioners”) happy that they want professors to refrain from holding them accountable for poor performance. Don’t give low grades, even where they’re obviously deserved. Accept feeble excuses for not getting work done. The college experience is fun, but unfortunately tends to prolong adolescence by encouraging students to cling to the naïve idea that the world will adjust to suit them.
Another bad answer to the question, Henrie says, is that the reason to go to college is to learn about diversity. That’s the trendy justification offered by lots of ideologically driven people. Even if the students themselves just want some job training or the fun of the college experience, the diversity advocates want to use college as the opportunity to conscript them into a great social engineering project. “In their ‘encounter’ with diversity,” Henrie writes, “students will learn to overcome the intellectual and moral parochialism of their (presumably) privileged social origins and begin to appreciate the universality of Difference.”
Young people learn a lot about diversity just by living and there’s no reason to think that the college atmosphere is far better at teaching people to tolerate the differences they find among other humans. Furthermore, the diversity project, Henrie argues, leads to a “confused and chaotic course of study.” Worse yet, it has supplanted the courses that used to be regarded as the pillars of college education with courses that offer little but a quasi-Marxist attack on western civilization.
The final bad answer Henrie discusses is the idea, derived from John Stuart Mill, that the purpose of college is to get students to challenge reigning beliefs. The trouble with this approach is that it tends to collapse into a universal skepticism. Students are conditioned to think that all our traditions and institutions must be defective if they can’t pass the test of rigorous rationality. Utopian reformers love this, since it creates a horde of young people who imagine themselves to be deep and “critical” thinkers, but who actually have very shallow minds.
So there are several bad answers to the question “Why go to college?’ but what does Henrie regard as a good answer? He puts it this way: “To answer our question,’Why go to college?’ we must answer the question, ‘What sort of human beings should we wish to become?’ What are the real alternatives to professional man, postmodern man, and the dogmatically critical man?”
For guidance, Henrie turns to John Henry Newman, who wrote in his The Idea of a University that college education should aim at the “enlargement of mind.” What he was driving at was the importance of broad and balanced education, one that opens the mind so that it will be able to close upon the truth. The traditional liberal arts education sought to do that – to get the student to think about life from many different angles, to broaden his perspective and enhance his capacity for reasoned judgment.
There isn’t any one right formula for accomplishing that, but it is not going to happen if students only take courses with vocational training as their objective, or only courses designed to push multiculturalism or any other –ism. Nor, of course, will it happen if students are in college only for “the experience.”
Henrie isn’t saying that every student will become a profound philosopher if he attends a college offering a solid liberal arts education, but he does make this claim: “The properly educated man knows both what he knows and what he does not know, and consequently, he displays habits of consideration, courtesy, and fair-mindedness which are both moral and intellectual virtues.” In short, a good college education helps to make a person civilized.
As an advertising slogan aimed at prospective students, “We’ll make you more civilized” won’t get a college very far, but when presidents convene their top faculty and administrators for planning and strategy discussions, maybe they should ask if they couldn’t do more to help civilize their young charges.