College Through the Looking Glass

About a hundred years ago, Oxford professor John Alexander Smith addressed the first session of his moral philosophy class as follows: “Gentlemen, nothing that you will learn in the course of yours studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life [that is, after college, not after death–HB], save only this: that is you work hard and intelligently, you should be able to deter when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education.”

j9651Inevitably, author Andrew Delbanco continues: “Americans tend to prefer a two-syllable synonym…for the Angicism, rot–and so we might say that the most important thing one can acquire in college is a well-functioning…” Okay, you get the idea. (Odd that I am  reluctant to spell out B.S. given that the quote comes from a book published by Princeton University. Anyway…)

The book is called College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, and it’s actually fun to read, not stuffy at all, rather like a good lecture about the dubious history, dubious purpose, and dubious results of a college education, or, if you prefer, as I do and the author does, to consider the dubious and to celebrate the remarkable. Both are present, and have been since the very start. Early in the book, Abigail Adams can be found complaining about the current state of students, professors and education in general–that’s in 1776, but the complaints and criticisms date back to Greek and Roman times, long before our current institutions were a thought in anybody’s mind.


Today, there are about four thousand colleges in the United States. The author has visited about 100 of them, so I respect what he has to say, particularly as he discusses the liberal arts education that would provide, at least in part, the mechanism for the bullshit detector (there, I wrote it!) that is, in part, the reason for going to college in the first place. For a very long while, well, this is best said by Ohio State economics professor Richard Vedder:

with the possible exception of prostitution, teaching is the only profession that has had absolutely no productivity advance in the 2400 years since Socrates.”

A quote from former Johns Hopkins president William Brody is a nice addition:

if you went to a [college] class circa 1900 and you went today, it would look exactly the same, while you went to an automobile plant in 1900 and today, you wouldn’t recognize the place.”

The author is a college professor, and although he’s critical of the industry he clearly adores, he is quite clear on the statistics, and the reasons why college makes sense, worts and all.

Although not completely consistent with importance of a liberal arts education, or a college education generally, a college degree, even a Bachelor’s Degree, is a very good investment: those with a B.A. earn about 60 percent more than those whose resume lacks the degree. This fact leads to another one, and here, we begin to get at the real story of college in America:

if you are a child of a family making more than $90,000 per year, your odds of getting a B.A. by age twenty-four are roughly one in two; if your family’s income is between $60,000 and $90,000, your odds are roughly one in four; if your parents make less than $35,000, your odds are one in seventeen.”

It’s wrong to think about these patterns in isolation. Upscale students attend more selective colleges whose prestigious graduates are funneled into leadership roles in business, law and government. It’s a self-perpetuating system, the engine of social mobility in the United States even in the 21st century.

So that’s one argument in favor of college: economic success. The other argument demands a well-educated citizenry, what Professor Delbanco calls “the incubation of citizenship” as he defends the small group discussion in the above video. Strangely, this is not the argument that legislators focus upon–instead, they tend toward the more practical, and, in the long run, perhaps less significant, concern about the need for a population that understands ideas and makes wise decisions. College has always struggled with that role; those in law school and the like receive these messages and tend to think about these issues, but as for the rest of college students (and the rest of us, including those who have been through a more generalized college experience), not so much.

So here we are with a realist, a professor who seems to understand the arguments from multiple perspectives, stressing “a community of learning” on the one hand and recognizing, when considering a New York Times article, “for every one of those college-bound cars, there are scores of families whose children will be staying home to attend a commuter school without anything resembling traditional college life. Moreover, millions of college-age Americans never get to college in the first place.”

By the time they reach age twenty-six, “fewer than two-thirds of white high school graduates have enrolled in college.” The number is half for blacks, and slightly less for Hispanics. Among students who do enroll, more than a third never finish their degree.

There are so many issues, and often, it’s difficult for the average person to gain traction with many of them. This is precisely the place where a good college professor can make all the difference. And if you can’t afford or can’t quite make it to Princeton this month or this year, well, you (and I) now more fully understand the reason why many universities publish their professors’ best work in book form. Turns out, the book, which is also undergoing attack from every possible direction, remains a darned good idea for a hot sunny afternoon. I now know some things I didn’t know this morning, and I’m thinking about them hours later. Not quite the same as being in the presence of the man, but spending three hours reading about 200 pages of his well-written, well-edited ideas for just $17.95 (less if you buy online) is, simply, a good old-fashioned idea.

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