You bet your mortarboard. Stick with us, you’ll find out why.
But first, backstory: Last month, New York Times writer David Leonhardt slapped the debate about the value of our American college-for-all ethos smack-dab on our collective kitchen table. Ever since, knickers have been in a bundle all across the interwebs as readers, reporters, students, parents and, yep, even faculty members have all weighed in with, if not your basic my-way-or-the-highway answers, at least impassioned questions:
Does higher education matter? Is college worth the bucks — or the lifetime of debt? Why are graduation rates falling? And the big Kahuna: should college teach us how to think or teach us how to do?
The Times’ Jacques Steinberg weighed in a few weeks later with a piece of his own whose title said it all: Plan B: Skip College. That piece cranked up the blogosphere for days, generating a lot of, well, polite debate, much of which centered on a pretty central question that I might frame thus:
Who the hell cares about a classic liberal arts education when what we really need are techno-geeks?
The answer, I’m pleased to say, is lots of us. One comment to Steinberg’s piece was especially elegant:
Does “intensive, short-term vocational and career training” teach you to write well? Or to communicate effectively, think critically, view the world in general from a perspective other than your own? Aren’t these a few of the mandates of higher education? The argument of the scientists in this piece too narrowly focuses the situation into “student+college=career.”
A college-education is supposed to prepare a student not just for a career but for an educated and informed life. Now, perhaps these goals are far too often attained. Yes, that’s an issue that needs to be addressed. But as is typical, there is room here for a compromise: well-rounded, career-based curricula infused with a healthy dose of liberal arts, science, and math courses.
Do mail carriers need a BS degree to place envelopes in a slot? Of course not. But you’d hope that there is more to their existence than this simple task.
Even more important, though, and what goes to the heart of what we’ve been talking about in this space, is this: What if said postal worker decides that, yeah, walking around delivering the mail is cool and all that, but what I really want to do is (fill in the blank)?
Back in April, we ourselves weighed in on how that very issue — locking yourself into Plan A before you’ve even tasted Plan B — impacts young, bright women carving out uncharted territory in the new millenium:
Is it all about the treadmill? Possibly so. Which makes me wonder if this is another way in which great expectations do women in. When you’ve felt the pressure of unlimited options ever since Career Girl Barbie or whatever-her-name-was first peeked out from under the Christmas tree, do you feel the roar of indecision, the fight between the red one or the blue one, early on — and shut it down by choosing a path too soon? And then sticking with it.
That’s certainly one way to kill the angst. Whew.
But maybe that’s why choices are so loaded, too, because they become so narrowly focussed — and by definition, do not include a back-up plan. Failure, that great teacher, is not an option. (Nor, for that matter, is the broad-based education. Classics, anyone?) And then, out into the real world, when that first job is more about fetching lattes than writing business plans, there’s that thing called regret.
Grass-is-greener syndrome suddenly comes calling and kicks the best and the brightest right there in the ass. That race ? Yeah, not in first place anymore.
And then what? Well, for the last word on the subject — following in the wake of pieces in the New York Times by David Brooks and Stanley Fisk — let’s read what Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University, had to say via a post on Wednesday’s HuffPo. Watch for the boldface:
It is certainly understandable that in these uncertain economic times families are more concerned than ever with the kind of education their students will receive. That’s why it’s so important to understand the deep, contemporary practicality of a liberal education. Patient and persistent critical inquiry has never been more crucial, and the development of this capacity is one of the defining features of a liberal education. One learns that successful inquiry is rigorous and innovative, and that one must be able to re-evaluate one’s own practices and prejudices. Real inquiry is pragmatic, and it is also reflexive — it includes rigorous self-examination. Given the pace of technological and social change, it no longer makes sense to devote four years of higher education entirely to specific skills. By learning how to learn, one makes one’s education last a lifetime. What could be more practical? Post secondary education, I am fond of telling the undergrads at Wesleyan, should help students to discover what they love to do, and to get better at it. They should develop the ability to continue learning so that they become agents of change — not victims of it.
Learning how to learn? An education that lasts a lifetime? Considerable bang for the buck, don’t ya think? Those thick books? Twenty page papers? Calculus, for the love of God?
Think trip, not destination. Discovery. Prepping yourself for the road not taken. In other words: Happy Graduation!