The New York Times held an essay
contest recently in which college students were invited
to respond to an article called "What's the matter with college?" The
article, which was published on a Times website, argues that
in the late 60's and 70's, college campuses played a larger
role in culture and politics than they do today. Author Rick
Perlstein fears that colleges have "lost their central place
in the broader society and in the lives of undergraduates."
I don't know what, if anything, is wrong with American colleges,
and I'm not in a position to judge whether they play a large
enough role in politics and culture. These questions, however,
have me wondering what college really means to me. That might
provide a clue to what it means to the rest of the country.
There's something about being on a college campus that makes
people feel good. My kids are still several years away from college,
but they went to camp at the University of Rochester this summer.
Just riding my bike through the campus to drop them off and pick
them up every day was transformative. Like many campuses, it
has great architecture and lots of walking paths and beautiful
landscaping. Colleges and universities are often pretty little
worlds unto themselves where everyone seems to be walking around
thinking Great Thoughts. That's inspiring (though I'll confess
I can't recall having many Great Thoughts when I was in school).
Of course, with tuition and other expenses
increasing by leaps and bounds in recent years, any discussion
of the meaning of college must take cost into account. When I
think of the very real and frightening prospect of having to
pay for my kids' education, some of my pie-in-the-sky thinking
turns into dark, scary storm clouds.
I often hear young people say, anxiously, that they want to
get trained for a job in college so when they get out they can
get right to work. Who can blame them? Do young people in this
rapidly changing world, with a difficult job market, have the
luxury of taking four years to read and think and dream? Instead
of studying liberal arts, shouldn't they be learning a marketable
trade? Shouldn't they, for all the money they're spending, expect
a return on their investment?
Well, yes and no. Yes, students should expect a return, but
no, they shouldn't necessarily learn a trade. The return on their
investment will, I believe, pay off better if graduates are well
rounded. Even with the crushing burden of debt that students
accrue, I still think a four-year liberal arts education is worth
It's true that many jobs today require a lot of technical knowledge,
but as jobs evolve and technologies change, most workers must
adapt and learn on the job. In order to keep up with new developments,
the main skill that workers need is the ability to think. If
you can think, you can learn a technical skill on the job. If
you can write, you can communicate your needs to others in order
to solve the problems at hand.
My father hired a lot of people to work in computing over the
years. At first, when computers were fairly new, he was thrilled
to hire the first computer majors graduating from college. But
he quickly became disenchanted - his programmers were stumped
by the smallest hurdles. His product managers, when problems
arose, were unable to question their assumptions and rethink
their options. He returned to hiring English majors, taught them
how to work with computers, and never looked back.
Now more than ever, with public-school education essentially
providing little more than endless preparation for endless state
tests, children need learn how to think. And they need to be
challenged by genius professors - who, ideally, have odd traits
and strange appearances (adding to the otherworldliness of college
while providing a nice contrast to the wholesomeness of public
school teachers). When my sons go to college and learn about
war and art and genetics and philosophy, I hope they'll apply
what they learn to the world around them, too. That will lead
them to participate in cultural critique and politics for the
rest of their lives. And it will help them get - and keep - jobs.
In college, students experience a blossoming
of their young minds, and, let's be honest, their young bodies.
College can be a Utopian mix of freedom of mind and freedom of
body. Sometimes when people look back at the archetypal college
experience of the late 60's and 70's, what they're recalling
is their experiences at the height of the sexual revolution.
That was a time when another horrible, endless war pulled us
together and also tore us apart. But in the midst of all that,
The Pill and "free love" offered some comfort. That would make
But even today, going away to school is the first chance most
kids have to drink, party, dance, screw, and generally destroy
their bodies. Or not. A wonderfully liberating aspect of college
is that you can also choose not to mess up your body.
Just knowing you have a choice - that it's your body you're pouring
tequila into, it's your body you're sharing with a friend - is
exhilarating. College can be a place where minds - among other
things - get blown. By brilliant lectures, cool scientific research,
and wild, far-ranging class discussions. Among other things.