American Liberal Arts Blog

Teaching the Liberal Arts in the American Context
Does a College Education Really Matter?
By Gerson Moreno-Riano, June 6, 2011 in Uncategorized

“I am not sure I want to go to college.”  This statement alarmed me.  As an academic and the dean of undergraduate studies at a private, faith-based university, such ambivalence about a college education worried me.  In this particular case, however, I was not just alarmed but seriously concerned.  This was so given the fact that the person making this statement was one of my own children. 

After a number of discussions and several days, my child was persuaded that a college education was the sine qua non of contemporary success.  But the statement continued to jar my mind since it raised a very important question – is a college education really valuable?  Every ounce of my being wants to shout “yes!”  But if so, then why?

There appears to be no good answers to the why question – at least no real persuasive answers.  In the recent Pew Research Center’s “Is College Worth It?” report, a majority of Americans think that a college education fails to live up to its price tag.  Why is this so?  Perhaps it is related to the fact that our current higher education models are no longer in harmony with what it means to be a human being.  Rather, they are in line with priorities that reflect political and economic necessities.  This mismatch between an education that fosters a deep humanity and one that supports political and economic priorities may be the reason why the American public and, perhaps, my own child are ambivalent about higher education.

Let me illustrate what I mean about this mismatch.  In a conversation with a high school senior, this student shared with me why he did not want to attend college after his graduation.  He wanted, as he put it, “to go to the jungle, get lost, and become wise.”  Whatever one may think about this post-graduation plan, there is something profound about this desire – to become wise.  In my estimation, this has been the bedrock of higher education in the Western tradition, namely, the pursuit and acquisition of wisdom.  To be educated was to be wise, to be a lover and doer of truth and goodness.  This particular student and, I would argue, many other students and families are not as interested in gainful employment, monetary accumulation, and national competitiveness as American colleges, universities, and the Department of Education are nowadays.  What this student and many others do deeply care about is whether or not they will be good human beings, good people, good fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, and friends.  What is the value of gainful employment, monetary gain, and a competitive nation when our homes, friendships, and societies are broken almost beyond repair?  As a businessman recently shared with me, “on my deathbed, I will be thinking about my relationship with my wife and kids and not the great business deals I cut last year.”

Interestingly enough, Pew’s “Is College Worth It?” report provides some evidence that substantiates the danger of this mismatch.  According to many Americans, character traits not education are “the most important determinants of success in life.”  As an academic and administrator, I can think of very few American college or university curricula that focus on educating students toward wisdom pursued and acquired as evidenced in upright characters.  The overwhelming trends are to consider college education as the pursuit of self-discovery or the acquisition of skills needed for gainful and competitive employment.  Graduates from such institutions may indeed acquire gainful employment and may be bound up in the joy of self-discovery (whatever that means), but will they have the wise and virtuous characters requisite for a rapidly changing world?

I suggest that we begin to re-think American education and re-cast it along the pursuit and acquisition of wisdom.  This pursuit does not have to be antagonistic to political and economic necessities.  It should be prized far beyond them and thus serve as the moral compass with which to evaluate and guide such considerations.  Such re-casting would require a deep, honest, and perhaps widespread conversation about the nature of human life and education.  I can think of no better time than now to start this dialogue. 

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Lee Trepanier on Jun 6, 2011 at 8:15 am

Excellent post about the mismatch between the public's expectation of college education and what the actual education consists of. But I would also point to the problem of inflation in college tuition (often at 6-8% per year). It seems that unless we can figure out some way to control these costs, the public will continue to devalue college education, whether they conceive of it as the acquisition of wisdom or preparation for the workforce.

Ronald J. Granieri on Jun 7, 2011 at 11:41 am

An excellent post. The problem as I see it is that any attempt to define the value of an education in material terms is bound to fail, since the argument is already lost if the listener does not consider the non-material benefits....

I could go on and on, but maybe I should save that for a blog post of my own!

Fritz Oehlschlaeger on Jun 7, 2011 at 3:41 pm

Good post. I would hope that the diminution in prestige of college educations is actually a sign that other kinds of knowledge/wisdom are again also becoming more valued: practical skill in trades, the inherited wisdom associated with the rearing of children, agricultural knowledge of all kinds, church tradition etc. The list goes on; one hopes the developments noted in the post indicate part of a general de-schooling of society, to borrow a phrase from an earlier time.

Lee Trepanier on Jun 8, 2011 at 7:59 am

There is a wonderful book that talks about how wisdom can be discovered in practical pursuits: Crawford's Shopcraft as Soulcraft.

John D Mueller on Jun 8, 2011 at 4:41 pm

Interesting post and discussion. Richard Vedder made a modest proposal in today's Wall Street Journal: "Time to Make Professors Teach: My new study suggests a simple way to cut college tuition in half." What do you think?

Lee Trepanier on Jun 9, 2011 at 6:31 am

I couldn't read the article, since I'm not an online subscriber to the WSJ. However, I would propose if one were serious about reducing college costs, then one would start with non-instructional spending, particularly with administrator's salaries. At some universities, there now are more administrators than faculty. If universities would cut or severely reduce things like plush dormities, student life programs, and six-figure salaries of deans and presidents, then I would suspect you would see costs drop dramatically.

John on Jun 9, 2011 at 12:09 pm

I am all in favor of understanding college as the pursuit, or the first steps within the pursuit, of wisdom. If so I think that we would then have to understand that college is not for everyone. The idea that everyone should go to college is not comaptible with the notion that college is about the pursuit, never mind attainment,of wisdom.

Patrick Ford on Jun 9, 2011 at 12:33 pm

Terribly interesting topic, with commentary that could take us in any number of different directions. I must exercise discipline. . . .

Gerson's initial reaction to his son or daughter's comment is telling. Why do academic sorts (I consider myself one in spirit) place such a high value on college education? Is college the best or only place to "foster a deep humanity" in our children, to instill in them wisdom and a love of the good? I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that for many, if not most, college students today, college has precisely the opposite effects. A true liberal education can still be found, and it is of great value; but the reason that it has become the "sine qua non" in the last few decades must, I think, be connected to the breakdown of the mediating institutions and smaller cultural communities that used to foster wisdom and virtue ("deep humanity") in their members.

Fortunately, as one or two of the previous comments suggest, we have not lost sight entirely of the possibility that other forms of "education" could foster the kind of individuals and communities we desire. But we (that is, tradition-minded types who are in or associated with or fond of academia) must make a special individual effort, especially as parents, to resist the cultural pressures which insist that a person can become successful (in the humane sense) and wise only with the help of a college education. Again, a true liberal education is still possible, and greatly to be esteemed; but if our goal is to foster wise and virtuous persons, then a college education should be only one of many paths for a person to achieve the telos he shares with his fellow-travelers on this earth (and not always the "best" possible way for any particular person, either).

Secondary education should already be preparing our children for a life of virtue and a life of the mind, the latter of which should be conceived of in such a way that it is accessible to businessmen and bakers and bricklayers, and not just full-time academics. Needless to say, most secondary institutions fail miserably at this; all that means is that we are going to have to shoulder a greater share of the burden of educating our own children.

I, for one, will not be the least bit disappointed if my child grows up to be a B.A.-less electrician, so long as he is still able to (and does) read great books and engage great ideas. If that seems unrealistic, I think it says more about our culture's (and our personal) imagination and the state of its educational institutions than it does about the actual possibility of the scenario.

Higher education, for those who desire it and are personally suited to it, and a sustaining cadre of full-time philosophers, if I may use the term broadly, are not only desirable, they are essential to the flourishing of a culture. But let us not confuse this with the notion that our cultural health requires everyone (or at least anyone who is socially and psychologically well-adjusted) to receive a college education.

Patrick Ford's Addendum . . . on Jun 9, 2011 at 12:40 pm

I should clarify: even if my hypothetical B.A.-less electrician son does not spend much time reading great books and engaging great ideas in the way that an academic might, I shall be entirely satisfied so long as he is a good, virtuous, thoughtful, faithful, well-rounded man. I plan to teach my children how to read and think at a high level; whether they spend much time doing that throughout their lives is up to them.

John on Jun 10, 2011 at 12:01 pm

In discussions of this kind there always appears to be some unstated but golden age that is the foil of the conversation. At what time was the virtuous man the dominant human type or the life of the mind considered the best life by the culture as a whole?

A cadre of full-time philosophers does not appear to me to be a cultural good. If anything I suspect such a cadre is in fact a threat to cultural health.

There seems to be a contradiction in discussions of this sort. One the one hand a call back to a sort of classically conceived way of life but based upon certain modern and enlightenment prejudices. One such prejudice is the public good of philosophy.

Patrick Ford on Jun 13, 2011 at 12:43 pm


I'm confused: what does the relative rarity of virtue and of the life of the mind tell us, exactly? That these are not goods to be pursued personally or promoted for others? Perhaps you can explain in more detail.

I don't believe I said anything that implies I am measuring the current state of higher education in America against some non-existent golden age. In fact, I think we would agree on this much: as my post made clear, I don't think college is for everyone. (A "life of the mind," rightly conceived, is, like virtue, something open to everyone and good for everyone, even if only relatively few people desire and achieve it—and it does not depend upon, though it can be improved by, a college education.)

As for the "cadre of philosophers" issue, perhaps I should have been clearer. No doubt intellectual elites can do great damage to a society with their ideas. I think what I was trying to suggest is that sustaining anything like a real "culture" in a society requires a least some members of that society to dedicate their lives to some purer mode of reflection than is typically available to the average citizen—whether that life of leisure manifests itself in "philosophy" proper, religious thought, the fine arts, etc., which is why I used the term "philosophers" at its broadest. I don't think a total society of mere producer-consumers who spend any free time they have doing nothing more than devising new ways to entertain themselves could have much claim to "culture."

To clarify, my original phrasing made it sound like this sustaining core of philosophers should be a sort of elite professional class, which is by no means true. Ideally, the life of leisure should be closely united in a reciprocal, organic relationship with an integral community. Intellectuals go astray precisely insofar as they become divorced from the society which makes their life possible; the result is that alien ideas born within this class start to dissolve the foundations of the supporting society.

John on Jun 13, 2011 at 1:42 pm

Patrick, I supposed our disagreement is rooted in the whether or not the "life of the mind" is open to everyone and good for everyone. I don't think so and I understand the notion that is it is or ought to be as an enlightenment prejudice. That not all ought to embark on the rational investigation into the nature of things is in insight shared by almost, if not all classical thinkers. It is also something that Thomas warns of in 1.1.1 of the Summa.

I'm not so confident that culture is the product of people engaged in a "purer mode of reflection." I would perhaps draw a sharper line than you might between art and philosophy.

Patrick Ford on Jun 16, 2011 at 5:03 pm


Thanks for the response. As you note, I'm using the terms "life of the mind" and "philosophy" very broadly, more broadly than is probably justified.

Let me clarify with a pedestrian example. Is it possible for my plumber, who has no college education, to have a "life of the mind"? Is it inconceivable that he might go home at night and read Jane Austen rather than watching American Idol? I think the only reason this seems slightly absurd is the degeneration of elementary and secondary education in our country, which brings along with it a sharpening of intellectual and professional class lines. At one time, not so very long ago, many American farmers read political philosophy, and the townsfolk from Galesburg, Illinois, could sit for three hours and listen to (and presumably understand) Lincoln and Douglas as they debated complex ideas at an extremely high level (now the debates are read as political texts in college classrooms).

This—the learned, that is the acquired/taught/cultivated, capacity for engaging important ideas and art at fairly high levels—is what I mean by "life of the mind," and I see no reason why theoretically it is or should be less accessible to my plumber than it was to the baker and his wife in 1858 Galesburg. (I do not mean that my plumber should be capable of digesting Aquinas.)

And I have no hesitation in suggesting that, while it would not necessarily make my plumber a better plumber, it would almost certainly make him a better, more informed, less pliable citizen. What I have described is, I don't doubt, "good for everyone," and a country of such citizens would be a better country, and less likely, among other things, to wish to offload all problem-solving to a higher ("smarter") authority. The current system—bread and circuses and an awfully poor education for those blue-collar hicks—sharpens intellectual/professional/social class lines and undermines local communities and organizations—no?

Finally, I too see a distinction between philosophy proper and art. I was simply using "philosophy" to stand for those activities that are made possible by leisure, a la Pieper. A total life of leisure seems to be something open only to a few, and the "work" those few do seems, historically, to have been essential to the fostering of "culture."

Sorry my comments are also so intolerably long. Brevity was never my strong suit.

about the author

Gerson Moreno-Riano
Gerson Moreno-Riano

Gerson Moreno-Riano has been appointed as Dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies at Regent University.  He is also an associate professor of government at Regent.  He has been at Regent since 2006.

Moreno-Riano's latest publications include the co-authored The Prospect of Internet Democracy (Ashgate, 2009) and the edited volume The World of Marsilius of Padua (Brepols, 2007).  He is currently at work on two commissioned projects: 1) a companion to Marsilius of Padua and 2) organizational evil in the modern era.