Preparing for College

What Is College For, Anyway?

I was just thinking about this while walking the other day. Just what, exactly, is college for, anyway?

I deal with many high schoolers who go on to college and maintain contact with some of them over the years. Of course, I have two children who went through the college experience, as did I (back, as I always say, when dinosaurs roamed the earth). In thinking about my question, I wondered if the true, idealistic purpose of "higher education" has ever completely realized among the majority of the millions who have passed through the ivy gates.


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Well, as luck would have it (there are no coincidences, you know), I found a cool article by John M. Crisp, who teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. He has answered my question, in some ways more completely than I could have answered it myself, even after an extra-long walk. Here's his opinion of what college is all about:

So what exactly is a college for?

Here’s a question that all thoughtful college professors must ask themselves occasionally: Beyond the football and fraternities, the manicured lawns and the book-lined shelves in their own offices, beyond the binge drinking and parties and networking and casual sexual liaisons, beyond term papers bought and sold and sometimes actually written, beyond all of the genuine hard work and study and examinations, what, after all, is college for?

The college campus as a seat of hoary scholarship and learning for learning’s sake is still an attractive ideal, but it’s been a long time since the primary objective of college was the nourishment of scholars. Quite reasonably, students (and parents) have demanded that college degrees focus on information, skills, and credentials that lead to profitable employment, and colleges and universities have tried to accommodate them.

The days when students acquired broad backgrounds in traditional studies such as history, art, literature, and language are, for the most part, gone. These disciplines are still a part of the curriculum, but they’ve been reduced to make more room for practical and marketable courses that support students’ majors and, eventually, their professions and careers.

At the risk of oversimplification, the traditional academy, with its interest in the humanities and theoretical science, has always had an uneasy relationship with the practical, and often anti-intellectual, American spirit and its preoccupation throughout our history with colonization, survival, the frontier, industrialization, and business.

After all, students who study history, literature, art, drama, music, language, and so on — disciplines that are seemingly unconnected to the goals of modern business — sometimes develop attitudes that are disagreeable to the corporate world.

For example, students who spend too much time studying these disciplines may develop an enhanced capacity for critical thinking, even skepticism, that could conflict with the single-minded corporate impulse toward profit. They may acquire a broader worldview that interferes with the ability to focus on the concrete concerns of business. Their knowledge of pure science and geography may make them less willing to tolerate the pollution of our environment, a common by-product of modern business.

Students who study these traditional disciplines may develop an inconvenient set of ethics that would make some modern business practices impossible. Their ability to think and to communicate may generate an empowerment that will make them less docile and compliant workers.

This is the subversive side of the university, the side that represents an undeclared challenge to the corporate values that we otherwise accept so readily. The side that keeps colleges and universities from becoming mere vocational schools. Despite their practical inutility, it’s important that these traditional disciplines be preserved and practiced, not only by scholars and philosophers, but also to some extent by all who aspire to be educated participants in our democracy.

Is it too much to hope that voters with a better grasp of history, philosophy, and literature would elect better leaders? And would leaders who had studied less business and more history and philosophy have a better understanding of the world and humanity and, therefore, be more receptive to voices of caution and less willing to repeat the blunders of the past? One can hope.

In the meantime, may colleges preserve their fading role as a place where students can still learn more about the world than just how to do a job. Despite its essentially utilitarian mission, my own college maintains strong programs in music, drama, and art. We try to teach our students some history and science and math, even if they’ll never use them in their careers. In the English Department, we try to expose them to a few good books and teach them how to write a little better.

We call these disciplines the “humanities” because ... well, they’re what make us human.

I guess I should add my two cents here, too. In my carefully considered opinion, college is, essentially, about learning how to learn. Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." My college experience taught me how to learn about--and examine--my own life.

Introspection may be among the rarest of qualities in today's youth. Their lifestyles are so kinetic, even frenetic, that by the time they arrive at college, they blow right past the learning how to learn part. They are so distracted by texting the world, updating their Facebook pages, and gearing up for party weekends (they begin on Thursday nights), that they arrive post-graduation ill-equipped to know who, in fact, they are and how to mange the myriad circumstances and curve balls that life will throw at them. If they had learned how to learn, they would be able to solve many problems that may have already derailed them, in one way or the other.

Here's my challenge: What do you think college is for? Let us know.

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