Isn’t that a good question to ask, on the first day of class? And to keep on asking? It deserves more than the ritual lip-service we tend to give it at term’s beginning, before settling into autopilot.
I tend to treat Opening Day of the academic season much as I treat its April counterpart in baseball, as a lighthearted and festive occasion to wax just a bit silly on a subject I care deeply and seriously about. But setting aside Douglas Adams’ philosophical whale and Monty Python’s Argument Clinic for a moment, I want to think a bit this morning about that question. It’s the title of chapter five of William Deresiewicz’s controversial book Excellent Sheep, and it’s really the main subject of that book (which generated most of its heat with a critique of elite education, but whose message applies to us public land-grant educators and our students as well). Some of its more trenchant observations:
“College, after all, as those who like to denigrate it often say, is “not the real world.” But that is precisely its strength. College is an opportunity to stand outside the world for a few years, between the orthodoxy of your family and the exigencies of career, and contemplate things from a distance.”
“Life is more than a job; jobs are more than a paycheck; and a country is more than its wealth. Education is more than the acquisition of marketable skills, and you are more than your ability to contribute to your employer’s bottom line or the nation’s GDP, no matter what the rhetoric of politicians or executives would have you think. To ask what college is for is to ask what life is for, what society is for—what people are for. Do students ever hear this? What they hear is a constant drumbeat, in the public discourse, that seeks to march them in the opposite direction. When policy makers talk about higher education, from the president all the way down, they talk exclusively in terms of math and science. Journalists and pundits—some of whom were humanities majors and none of whom are nurses or engineers—never tire of lecturing the young about the necessity of thinking prudently when choosing a course of study, the naïveté of wanting to learn things just because you’re curious about them.”
“You’re told that you’re supposed to go to college, but you’re also told that you are being self-indulgent if you actually want to get an education. As opposed to what? Going into consulting isn’t self-indulgent? Going into finance isn’t self-indulgent? Going into law, like most of the people who do, in order to make yourself rich, isn’t self-indulgent? It’s not okay to study history, because what good does that really do anyone, but it is okay to work for a hedge fund. It’s selfish to pursue your passion, unless it’s also going to make you a lot of money, in which case it isn’t selfish at all.”
“What’s the return on investment of college? What’s the return on investment of having children, spending time with friends, listening to music, reading a book? The things that are most worth doing are worth doing for their own sake. Anyone who tells you that the sole purpose of education is the acquisition of negotiable skills is attempting to reduce you to a productive employee at work, a gullible consumer in the market, and a docile subject of the state. What’s at stake, when we ask what college is for, is nothing less than our ability to remain fully human.”
“In 1971, 73 percent of incoming freshmen said that it is essential or very important to “develop a meaningful philosophy of life,” 37 percent to be “very well-off financially” (not well-off, note, but very well-off). By 2011, the numbers were almost reversed, 47 percent and 80 percent, respectively. For well over thirty years, we’ve been loudly announcing that happiness is money, with a side order of fame. No wonder students have come to believe that college is all about getting a job.”
“The idea that we should take the first four years of young adulthood and devote them to career preparation alone, neglecting every other part of life, is nothing short of an obscenity. If that’s what people had you do, then you were robbed. And if you find yourself to be the same person at the end of college as you were at the beginning – the same beliefs, the same values, the same desires, the same goals for the same reasons – then you did it wrong. Go back and do it again.”
Every teacher and student, not just the ivies, should read Excellent Sheep, and then its sequel “How College Sold Its Soul to the Market“:
As college is increasingly understood in terms of jobs and careers, and jobs and careers increasingly mean business, especially entrepreneurship, students have developed a parallel curriculum for themselves, a parallel college, where they can get the skills they think they really need. Those extracurriculars that students are deserting the classroom for are less and less what Pinker derides as “recreational” and more and more oriented toward future employment: entrepreneurial endeavors, nonprofit ventures, volunteerism. The big thing now on campuses — or rather, off them — is internships.
All this explains a new kind of unhappiness I sense among professors. There are a lot of things about being an academic that basically suck: the committee work, the petty politics, the endless slog for tenure and promotion, the relentless status competition. What makes it all worthwhile, for many people, is the vigorous intellectual dialogue you get to have with vibrant young minds. That kind of contact is becoming unusual. Not because students are dumber than they used to be, but because so few of them approach their studies with a sense of intellectual mission. College is a way, learning is a way, of getting somewhere else. Students will come to your office — rushing in from one activity, rushing off to the next — to find out what they need to do to get a better grade. Very few will seek you out to talk about ideas in an open-ended way. Many professors still do care deeply about thinking and learning. But they often find that they’re the only ones.
Too bleak for Opening Day? Maybe it’s not too late for some of us to retain or regain our souls. Hope springs eternal, in the beginning.
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