Posts Tagged ‘college’

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!

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graduationOne of the problems with decisions is we sometimes make them before we’re ready. Sometimes we’ve forced ourselves into a box. Sometimes we entered that box with a skip and a smile. Sometimes it’s been a full-court press to please the iconic self. But as the saying goes (or did I make this up?): Decide in haste, repent in leisure. Quite possibly, a few years down the line, we’ll look over our shoulders, second guess ourselves, and wished we’d opted for Door Number One, wondering what for the love of God were we thinking.

I bring this up not because of that Hefty bag full of extremely unfortunate clothing I donated to the Good Will this weekend — but because I just came across a Newsweek essay (and cover story) advocating a three year college degree.

I vote no, as in Absolutely Not.

I can think of any number of reasons why the argument, proposed by Sen. Lamar Alexander, former education secretary under the first Pres. Bush, is an idea that stinks. But chief among them is the fact that making a choice that you won’t regret in the morning is often a function of growing up. Which is, in good part, the work of higher education.

But sure, I get it. Three years versus four means saving a boatload of money when it comes to tuition and living expenses. For the vast majority of students, it means a smaller debt load tucked into the diploma. For most kids, that’s crucial. And yet. An accelerated degree means choosing a path at, oh, age 18. (Think back to your adolescent self — would you really want that person to dictate your grown-up life? Gives me the willies just to think.) Then sticking hard to the program for three years without a taste of anything else, and jumping into the real world at just about the same time you’re legal to order your first martini.

Hmmm. Can you even qualify for a lease on an apartment at that age without your parents to co-sign? I digress.

But let’s back up. Sure, the plan could work for some students, those super-focused and dedicated souls who knew they wanted to be doctors or lawyers or engineers when they were five and never blinked. College in three? Done! Straight to grad school? Yes! And more power to them. But most of us? Not so focused. Where’s the time for exploration? Reflection? Discovering passions? Isn’t that part of what college is all about?

What I see here is a recipe for regret. Or a return ticket to university life some ten years down the line. Undecided? Here we come.

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