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.