Why Educate?

As summer draws to a close, families deliver their sons and daughters to college. They have checked the ratings, visited the campuses and “fit” the young person into an environment where they hope he or she can thrive. Private college tuition in the United States runs from an average of $25,000 a year to as much as $50,000, plus room, board and books. To afford this some parents are forced to work two or more jobs, postpone retirement, skip vacations—even sell their homes. To them the investment is worth it, but people measure value in different ways. A college education may “pay off ” in a Wall Street job or, for others, two years in the Peace Corps.

Because of the crippling effects of economic inequality, education matters more than ever. But recent headlines bring bad news. Eighty-nine percent of colleges report a rise in clinical depression and 58 percent in anxiety disorders. Binge drinking clouds the mind. Counseling centers struggle to meet the demand, with long wait times to see a psychiatrist. Meanwhile, well-known universities grapple with how to prevent and fairly prosecute sexual assault. According to U.S. Catholic (Sept. 2015), eight Catholic schools have introduced sexual assault prevention programs. Others have banned fraternities and sororities and prohibited alcohol.


Students’ responses to these and other moral crises will depend on the values they have learned from their families and what they learn in class and the dorms. But beneath these experiences is a more fundamental problem, one that rarely makes the headlines but is at the heart of higher education in the 21st century.

In a provocative essay in the September issue of Harper’s, “The Neoliberal Arts,” William Deresiewicz, author of Excellent Sheep, indicts the encroachment of neoliberalism, an ideology that reduces all values to money, on campuses. Its purpose, he says, is to “produce producers” rather than “complete human beings.” One need not adopt his terminology or agree with his examples to see the importance of his argument. Indeed, his central thesis is consistent with the mission of Jesuit higher education and many other colleges, religious and secular: the college experience must enable students to “build a self or (following Keats) to become a soul.” This standard measures a graduate by who she becomes as a person, not on how much she makes.

This is not an elitist idea. It applies to anyone who wants to read a book, sing a song, appreciate a painting or a show. And a student can major in anything—filmmaking, engineering, accounting, nursing, theology or management—and still, if the core curriculum is strong, receive a solid liberal education.

Governors and presidential candidates have proposed several ideas for higher education reform. Florida’s Gov. Rick Scott, to save money, wants to charge higher tuition for those who major in liberal arts in order to attract more engineering and biotechnology students. Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker tried to rewrite the University of Wisconsin’s mission statement, crossing out public service and replacing “search for truth” with “meet the state’s workforce needs.” President Obama once promised that “folks can make a lot more” learning manufacturing and trades than with an art history degree.

Our leaders are responding, in part, to the student debt crisis, which leaves many students in need of a well paying job in order to get a good start in life. Senator Bernie Sanders has proposed the College for All Act, by which the federal government would cover 67 percent and the states 33 percent of the total tuition of public colleges and universities. The money would come from a Robin Hood tax on Wall Street’s investment houses and stock trades. Another proposal would cut by half the interest rates on student loans and enlarge the federal work-study program.

Under either political party, the government must assume its obligation to make education possible. Private schools too, should continue to search for ways to make a college education more affordable for poor and middle-class students. All students should have the opportunity to take the unique journey that college affords.

For those entering college this fall, make the most of it. Pray, make a retreat or take an in-depth course on a Gospel. Choose a mentor, attend a lecture, seek guidance on your future. A service project, especially the chance to help the sick and the poor, can educate the heart. After a year abroad, one will never be the same. Embrace friends; struggle to keep them for life. Read some of the Great Books—Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Hugo, Dickens, Austen, Melville. The goal is not to “teach a lesson” but to allow the great writers to intimately enter the lives of readers literally hundreds of years and thousands of miles away. In this way they live again, and we “build a self, become a soul.”

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Charles Erlinger
3 years ago
And by the way, don't forget to prepare for your daily Calculus quiz and try not to spend more than 20 hours a week in your Physics and Chemistry labs.
David Ryan
3 years ago
The problem with this, like most differences of opinion, is in the definitions and assumptions rather than the application of logic to those assumptions (which is why it is important to study math). Defining education as having a college degree is dubious at best, and when considered in the context above of being a good person with a good soul, should be rejected outright. Additionally, assuming that getting a college degree provides education is not necessarily true (especially if we say the best possible education). Since the days of Abraham Lincoln, it has been possible to get an education outside of universities while spending very little money, although it does require an incredible amount of work and determination. Through the public library system, the government does make it accessible to all, once again without needing a university. The creation of Google, CourseEra, and the like make it possible to gain knowledge without cost, if one is willing. And traveling abroad, interacting with new and different people, and experiencing things outside one's comfort zone can happen equally well with or without a university stamp of approval. A college degree is not necessary for a good education, as we define education in this article. The purpose, then of the college degree, is completely transactional. One purchases a degree, or more accurately, a certain standard education and the certification that one has attained that education, in order to use that education and certification for something specific. If the investment of the cost of the degree does not return anything in terms of income or opportunity, then it is better to get the informal education and become a better person, without "wasting" money on a degree that will not provide more. Education and institutions of higher education should not be conflated to be the same thing. Continuously educating oneself is a responsible part of being in this world. Paying for a college degree should be a calculated decision based on investment and return on the investment.
Chuck Kotlarz
3 years ago
When asked by his older brother what his major was, a student from a prestigious university replied, “Philosophy”. The brother asked, “Would you later go on to med school or law school?” The student replied, “No.” Finally the brother said, “Have you considered business, engineering or science?” The former philosophy major currently leads a university with one of the nation’s top ten endowments. At the time of the American Revolution, college studies focused on ancient languages, ancient history, theology, and mathematics. Major colleges at the time included Harvard, Yale, the College of New Jersey (subsequently Princeton), King's College (subsequently Columbia) and the College of Philadelphia (subsequently the University of Pennsylvania). All make today’s top ten list of the nation’s largest university endowments.
Tim O'Leary
3 years ago
The cost of college is soaring, growing at double the cost of healthcare and four-times the cost of housing*. At the same time, the rigor of the education is going in the opposite direction. This is clearly an economic bubble situation, and bubbles are unsustainable. Most colleges are so ideologically constrained that they may be mainly miseducating their students, ethically and factually, so that students must re-educate themselves when they get a job in the real world. Bernie "soak the rich" Sanders has a plan that will only increase further that cost, and delay the market correction that is sorely needed. A few schools still manage to teach a real liberal education, especially the Great Books schools (Thomas Aquinas College, St. John's in Annapolis, the 3-year PLS at Notre Dame, U. Dallas, Hillsdale, Biola, etc.), and less so those who engage their students with the classics for a small part of their education before specialization (Princeton, Columbia, U. Chicago, Boston College, Loyola Univ. MD, etc.). Several Jesuit colleges still manage to be Catholic and teach an authentic liberal education, although their desire for acceptance by their secular academic peers has turned some into a secular-lite college (notably Georgetown), driven by politically correct indoctrination rather than education. The increasing sophistication of online courses, audible books and other e-resources will likely burst the college bubble. A combination of online education and a part-time college presence could provide an excellent liberal education for most in half the time, and at a fifth or tenth the present cost. This will be fiercely resisted by academics (less money and less time to indoctrinate the students in their pet ideologies) and their political allies, but it is likely to succeed all the same. Other colleges and universities can then focus on technical education and the professions. http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2013/10/23/charts-just-how-fast-has-college-tuition-grown http://www.thomasaquinas.edu/a-liberating-education http://pls.nd.edu/


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