It’s easy to fall into the trap of accepting statements about college without thinking them through.
One idea that gets thrown around as if it were obviously a good idea is ‘college for all.’ I’ve come to the conclusion that opportunity for college for all is something we should strive for — but that is not the same thing as college attendance for all. As this editorial points out, there are many problems with attempting to get everyone through college. One of the key points is this:
The two most important reasons are, first, that an unintended consequence of the college-for-all movement has been “we’ve dumbed down college.” Kids study less than their parents attending college did. I suspect that grade inflation is an outgrowth of two things: first the late 1960s/early 1970s movement to “democratize” higher education involved introducing student evaluations of professors, providing incentives for professors to give higher grades. Second, and often overlooked, is that dropout rates would have reached embarrassingly high levels given the declining average quality of students arising from the college-for-all movement, unless higher education lowered grading standards, which, of course, was done.
Not all students are interested in academic work, or suited to it. Many of the young people I’ve had in my classes were utterly not ready for college — at that point in their lives. The ‘returning students’ who had taken a year or two between high school and college often did much better, because they knew why they were in college, and they were ready to work hard and learn.
I think there’s often a streak of elitism behind the ‘college for all’ idea: the idea that the only work worth doing is work that requires a college degree. I reject this idea. My own grandparents were mill workers (on my father’s side) and farmers (on my mother’s); I was the first in my family to go to college. My own particular gifts and calling are in the world of academics, but this does not mean that I am the better person for having those gifts or having this education — and were I to waste or mis-use these gifts and this education, it would be much worse.
One of the things that can get lost in the ‘college for all’ rhetoric is the value of universities as communities, with traditions that root each incoming class of new students into the fabric of culture and history. If a college degree is seen as nothing but a credential to get a job, the entire point of the liberal arts education has been missed.
I found an excellent example of this shortsightedness in a piece by a young woman who dropped out of an Oxford master’s program to get a job. For this student, Oxford (or any similar university) was never going to be the right choice for her, because she wanted something other than what a university offers (the piece is frustrating to read because she thinks that this disjunct reveals a problem with Oxford).
In one telling sentence, she writes, “I realised that Oxford holds an almost mythical position as the ultimate aspiration: with this stamp in your passport you can cross any border into any job, or so runs the assumption.”
Too many students — and college counselors — believe a college diploma is like the Golden Ticket from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This attitude is harmful to students in many ways, not least because students with that expectation are almost impossible to teach; they want their passing grade (or, more often, their A) with minimal effort so they can move on, and they are unhappy in a genuine learning environment. If we, the educators, allow the Golden Ticket approach to college, we are not doing what we ought: we will not be educating students.
The ex-Oxford-student goes on to ask an excellent question:
What is a university? My father never went to university, but, in a simple aside, he mentioned what he thought the experience might be like. What he said made me sad. He described a place where people who have a passion for knowledge come together to discuss, and to teach each other, in a space where they are free to let their minds wander. He imagined them as architects of the future, whose minds he trusted were being trained to do good things in the world.
I felt that I had been a part of the space he was describing. But it hadn’t been facilitated by university. Rather, it had been within networks of people who had come together to satisfy their own curiosity about a subject; creating their own spaces, virtual and physical, and inviting like minds to join the conversation.
Here, this young woman almost gets it right about what a university is for. One of the things she misses is the need for discipline and guidance. It is possible to self-educate, but it is difficult, because of the problem of “you don’t know what you don’t know.” Mentors, teachers, and professors who assign work that students have to do — who build programs with courses that students have to take — help build the foundation on which new work can be done… and help students develop the discipline to follow through on their new ideas.
When I was a college sophomore, having newly changed my major to English, I was excited about taking all the Cool Courses, like Arthurian Literature (which I did eventually take, and it was great.) I moaned and moped about having to take the required courses. British Literature I and II, ugh! Chaucer, and Spenser, and Milton (groan) and all that poetry stuff — do I have to? Really?
Yes, really. That’s what ‘required core course’ means.
And I look back, and shake my head: since now I write and teach poetry, and I passionately love British literature, especially medieval literature. Thank God for required courses!