Much is written these days questioning the value of a college education. Some of the musing is financial: articles reporting that parents and students are increasingly wondering about the payback of a high- (or even mid-)ticket four year private institution in a turned down economy.* Others, represented most insightfully by Matthew Crawford in his provocative, “Shop Class As Soul Craft,” propose the hypothesis that not only is college not for everyone, but we do some very gifted young people a disservice by insisting that their gifts can only be realized in a four-year college program (as opposed to technical school or the work place).
I believe both issues are well worth pondering, and I accept a variety of answers to the questions being pondered. But I want to hold a place for the worthiness of college – not as being necessarily superior to vocational education in all cases, but in the sense that it offers riches that cannot be calculated at the bottom line, and it is a useful adjunct to the lessons learned in tech school and even the school of hard knocks.
When I say “college” I mean, most pointedly, liberal arts. In the same way that we are rediscovering phys. ed. as a valuable part of a child’s elementary school experience (how eliminating it, and recess, are short-sighted responses with long-term consequences), so we are realizing (according to many social commentators), that an over-specialized approach to college as mere “job training” results in citizens who are more and more insulated from the larger questions of what it means to be a member of society and, well, “civilized.”
In their book Higher Education?, with the provocative sub-title, “How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money And Failing Our Kids And What We Can Do About It,” Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus propose,
What do we think should happen at college? We want young people to use their minds as they never have before, thinking hard about realities and issues that strain their mental powers. They should be urged to be imaginative and inquiring, to take risks without having to worry about their transcripts or alienating their teachers. To quote a friend, colleges should be making their undergraduates more interesting people. Higher education is an ongoing conversation, created for students poised at adulthood, which can and will continue throughout their lives.**
In a kind of vicious cycle, as more and more students enroll for preparation in what they understand to be the sought-after professions of the moment, more and more colleges are cutting down on liberal arts in general and the English department in particular because these departments aren’t making a profit for the schools and in fact are costing money.***
In my vocation, pre-seminary students are often advised to major in anything other than religion, the idea being that this will have the effect of producing a member of the clergy who is actually able to communicate with those in the real world. In the same vein, perhaps the engineer or business major who knows something of how poetry works, or the novels of Dickens, will discover that a light bulb of understanding will flicker on years down the road in a situation they never would have imagined or “prepared” for.
And to continue with my own profession as an example: Many candidates for ministry discern their calling after years in another occupation. Similarly – surveys show – over half of those who enter college with the intention of becoming engineers do not end up pursuing that field – even in their college years. Better to be prepared for life, which just might include a course in Shakespeare offered at the technical college.
*A related issue, for another post, perhaps, is the radical idea that a top-notch education may be attained at any number of modestly-priced institutions.
**Hacker explains some of their findings and proposals in this interesting interview on NPR.
***Here is an award-winning and thought-provoking essay by William M. Chace in "The American Scholar:" The Decline of the English Department.