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jennifer loviglio
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College - A nice place to visit but I wouldn't want to pay for it

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.

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 anyone nostalgic.

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.