The ‘imperative’ of higher education

It’s become part of the American Dream. My parents determined that their kids would do better financially, be freer to follow their dreams vocationally, and that we would each graduate from college. They paid a daily price to make those things happen, and they succeeded.

Every generation amends their dreams for their own offspring but few people I meet have let go of the hope that their brood will attend college. These days we say that with a bit of a gulp considering the cost.

But why do we go to college? Increasingly, I hear that the purpose is to prepare for a career. If that is so, why are so many philosophy and English majors serving as store managers and airline pilots? The idea that college prepares graduates for specific careers is dubious, I think.

Martin Luther King Jr. during his college days stressed the importance of character in addition to intelligence as the goal of “true education.” Others have followed this same line of thinking in making morality, the setting of goals and values, a primary item in the agenda of higher education. A valedictory address from 2005 claims that college is an opportunity to find out who you are and what you want out of life. I’m even less taken with the notion that a college education is responsible for setting one’s moral compass than I am with the whole “college as vo-tech school” idea.

Families and communities (churches too, for that matter) content to let kids grow to 18 years without knowing “who they are” reap the whirlwind with every emerging generation. Additionally, those willing to trust the Academy with the values-training of their young adults are criminally negligent. It’s a bit like letting kids watch dirty videos to learn about man-woman relationships. Kids should be fortified before facing the challenges to their values that typify a college education?quite the opposite approach to sending our little missionaries into the world completely unformed.

If the point made by Dr. King and company was smaller?that a student’s value system should be challenged by the new and diverse world opened by higher education?I’d be more enthusiastic. Even then, the definition of “challenge” in some classes and universities better fits the term “attempted murder.”

Character can be formed over the course of 18 years; it can only be tested or devastated in a mere 48 months.

I think I’ll go with a purpose Dr. King found important but incomplete.

“To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction,” he wrote back in 1947.

In other words, the purpose of higher education (all education that comes after a person commands the basic three R’s, I’d say) is to teach a person how to think and learn. The mark of an educated person is not based on what he believes or what he tolerates or even how much he knows; it is his ability to rationally evaluate an ever-expanding body of knowledge.

By my definition, high school should do for minor children what college does more rigorously for young adults. In neither case is it the role of the institution to form the character or belief system of the child. In both levels of study the institutions, public or private, should enhance the core of knowledge, the critical thinking skills, and the command of learning tools for each student.

Without an understanding of the “soft sciences” (the liberal arts), the much-touted math and science training our students need becomes the realm of vo-tech training. A man who has a deep understanding of bio-chemistry, for example, but who does not know or value historical context or the counsel of the ages contained in literature will be less prepared to rightly divide the massive amounts of information he retains. That’s a pretty good reason to discount political, theological, or relationship advice from those whose genius is narrowly focused in physics or medicine or even football.

Some of you grind your teeth when I seemingly discount vocational-technical training. Rest easy, I don’t. It occupies an important place in our communities. We need people who know how to do things. Such training may also be just the ticket for those who want a good job providing services for other businesses. My point is that these schools train people?they don’t educate them. Vo-tech training does not claim to be university training. Its focus should be narrower and its goals simpler. That does not make it something lesser, just different. A vo-tech school that teaches literature and welding is doing its job plus a little more. A university that simply teaches what people need to get an entry level job as a teacher or accountant has not done its job.

So what’s the point of this cheerful little back-to-school rant? Simply this: don’t stop expecting something pretty specific from those who help you educate your children after they graduate from high school. Do not, on the other hand, expect most colleges to institutionally add anything good to the character or direction of a child’s life. The years of young adulthood should do that. The total experience should reveal the character formed in childhood?and hopefully you’ll find a like-minded ally in a professor or administrator (we did)?but don’t send blank slates out the front door and expect the college faculty to consistently bless your heart with what they write there. Regardless of what they might think, it’s not their job to do that.

As to the imperative of higher education: I don’t think we should think of it that way. If we educate our children appropriately to their needs and nature for 18 years and then pay for whatever happens for the next four (or so), why put our children into a one-size-fits-all system for grades 13-16? Some kids need vocational training. It fits them best and will annoy them least and will cost all of us less. Some kids will flourish in a military environment?think of it as a total immersion course for adulthood. Some are ready to apprentice in some trade or business and should continue in the direction they have already begun. And then there are kids who are directed and fit and fortified for academic study. One size does not fit all, regardless of what we dreamed of when we first held the little nipper.

Whether or not our kids leave the nest as educated people depends on the same triad as other aspects of their character: nurture (how they were raised), nature (inborn personality traits), and will (what they decide to do). No one aspect of character is unimportant; neither are we powerless before any of them. A person will be (or not) that curious lifelong learner regardless of whether or not he/she pursues higher education. People who learn and think, whether they are carpenters or engineers, will distinguish themselves in any setting.

When you read of some of the lunatic ideas and priorities of a few members of the Academy do you ever think we have too many universities? Consider course offerings such as “Native American Feminism” at the University of Michigan, or “Adultery Novel” at the University of Pennsylvania, which studies “Marxist examinations of family as a social and economic institution,” among other things.

When you see kids with no idea of why they’re attending college backed by parents hoping the campus will somehow provide the cure for their son’s apathy toward learning, do you wonder why the poor boy is there? I do, and I think we often trudge unthinkingly behind models for our parenting that do not fit what know of our children.

Regardless of our best earlier intent, we continue to raise our kids even as they nose into young adulthood. That’s OK so long as it eventually tapers off some. In the meantime, let’s do it thoughtfully.
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