The College Crash7:30 AM
The college world is messed up.
And I don’t mean by the drunken partying up in UW-Madison or the evolution in nominally Christian universities or the disturbing adventure of walking through a liberal college’s art gallery. I mean that it’s fundamentally, from the roots up, wrong.
Another day I will write about the spiritual decay of higher academia (though, allegedly and interestingly, the more you’re educated, the more spiritual you are). Or do I even need to? If you’re one of those homeschoolers who watched Francis Schaeffer’s How Shall We Then Live? freshman year, you’ll be disgusted by my feeble observations. After that Other Day, I’ll perhaps write again of the dyspepsia and stomach ulcers caused by bad art pandered as self-expression. And perhaps after that Other Other Day, I’ll mention briefly how one cannot even peacefully eat free food in the cafeteria due to explicit and/or wacky student creativity nailed to the walls. And in case you didn’t get the point the first time, I might bring up the subject of art and liberal universities again, playing a sort of sculpture Pictionary with the insane creations planted prominently on the campus lawn.
But even apart from an explicitly Christian background—even discussed in an attempted moral vacuum—even when we’re just dealing with the idea of classical education Aristotle spawned—higher education is morbidly wrong.
Actually, that is a ridiculous question. Who asks that question anymore? (That’s rhetorical, by the way—unless your answer is about one of those mean guidance counselors who told every smart person I know that they’d fail in life and college.) What’s so telling about our broken higher education is that we beg the question and assume the answer: “Well, I go to college because it’s as culturally mandatory as 4K kindergarten.”
So the question isn’t asked why, in any sense asking for a reconsideration. The question is what—what degree? what career? what college?
The problem with higher education is twofold: (1) it’s choked by high school grads who haven’t the slightest idea of what they’re doing and (2) it’s dumbed itself down to easy access for those high school grads who haven’t the slightest idea of what they’re doing. And when you have shallow ideas, you have shallow vision, shallow outcome and shallow education. A true education, based on the enlarging of the mind, the tackling of truth and the tapping into of historical thought, cannot be obtained by those not willing to obtain it. Minimum input = minimum output. You get what you put in—no more, no less.
That’s pretty basic to understand. Colleges get this—they get it enough to realize that if they want the funds pouring in, they need to woo those shallow minds. So instead of upholding high standards, colleges have stooped to pragmatism, the one thing shallow minds seem to grasp. Instead of offering challenge, college offers compromise: you come a take a re-run of high school English comp and listen to a few lectures and pass a few tests and we’ll give you a shiny diploma and the (almost) guarantee of a great job.
Too shallow to grasp a different vision that might take a different path from college-career-retirement, these minds and these pupils sincerely sign up, wanting decent jobs and the bragging rights of a minimal post-high education. Bad economics and an obsession for careerism drives much of America’s student body and faculty today.
A marine biologist studying art history? That’s not my field of interest. A secretary knowingly debating about cultural apologetics? How does that benefit me? An English major pursuing a physics class? You never use that in real life, anyway.
It drives me up a wall.
There’s something to be said for prudence and the acknowledgement that no one can be an expert on everything. For some people, they rightly choose the minimal college route in order to jumpstart their vision. But even for them, even for those who may never step foot on campus (except for eight-year-old piano competitions)—a classical, liberal arts education never hurt anyone.
Indeed, it’s the key to success in both career and real life. Back when our founding fathers—no, back even to when Aristotle started teaching—the pursuit of truth, the enlightenment of the mind and those “impractical” courses permeated higher education. You learned political science and Greek not because it was totally pragmatic but because it stretched you into well-roundedness, if you will.
My favorite quote, mistakenly attributed to William Butler Yeats, goes, “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.” That’s a liberal arts education in a nutshell. What’s special about a liberal arts education is that it just doesn’t teach you what to think, in a finite “filling of the pail” way. It teaches you how to think—in a curiosity-inducing, “lighting of a fire” sort of way. Forced to digest Melville, read Plato and interact with scientific theories (and half-theories)—forced to be reading about events, people and ideas you don’t agree with or aren’t even supposed to agree with—this forces you to really develop the core of your character, your principles, your worldview.
Universities back in the day were hubs of research and exploration into philosophy, science and history. It was the marketplace of ideas. You went there not because you could get a piece of paper and a job guarantee but to be educated—to enlarge your mind in a way grammar school could not.
Reading, foreign language, politics, law, history, the arts—look up the educations of your favorite Revolutionary heroes and you’ll see how strange and marvelously liberating their education was.
“That’s nice,” so one might say, “but how is Plato going to land me a job?”
But that is exactly the opposite of what the liberal arts cultivates. People and life is not primarily career-oriented: it’s all about one’s interaction with the truth, with understanding, with tending to body, soul and spirit—without necessarily neglecting the importance of earning daily bread.
That’s what’s missing in today’s higher education. The remedy? Forbid yourself to ever say, “After all, this won’t matter in real life” and dust off Shakespeare.
(Or Charles Dickens, if you’d rather prefer.)