What Good Is a College Education These Days?
By LeRoy Lawson
With ever larger numbers of college alumni running the country, and not doing such a good job of it, what good is a college degree, anyhow? Are colleges just cranking out more dumb people with diplomas?
A friend recently asked my opinion of the “dumbing down of America.” He was referring to the general agreement that, in spite of record numbers of college graduates out there, Americans as a whole appear to be less civil, less informed, less able to reason, and less articulate than ever. (Even the term “dumbing down” is evidence, isn’t it? Is there such a thing as “dumbing up”?)
My friend then wanted to know if America really is dumbing down while at the same time claiming to be more highly educated. With ever larger numbers of college alumni running the country, and not doing such a good job of it, what good is a college degree, anyhow? Are colleges just cranking out more and more dumb people with diplomas?
Paradoxically, at the same time we’re “dumbing down,” schools are grading up. Grade inflation is endemic. A grade of C used to mean “average.” Average is at least a B now. Garrison Keillor is not just talking about Lake Wobegon when he claims “all the children are above average.”
We also seem to be “coarsing up.” When was the last time you listened to polite discourse, especially on television? Watch a so-called panel “discussion.” It’s more like nicely dressed combatants doing their best to outshout each other.
And what passes as humor seldom seems to rely on wit but instead on cheap jokes about body parts and functions (or malfunctions) and junior high locker room jokes. No brain required.
These panelists and comedians are, for the most part, college alumni.
So if a college education does not lead to deeper thinking, clearer speech, more civilized discourse, and a general heightening of intellectual achievement, what is it good for? Is merely gaining a set of technical skills enough? If it is, can’t it be attained more cheaply? You can always use Google.
For years, escalating tuition has outpaced the rising general cost of living. It is understandable, since colleges must provide so many more services than ever before. But a bumper sticker I once saw keeps things in perspective: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”
A NEGATIVE VIEW
Is college worth the cost? At today’s high prices, what is it good for? My contrarian answer has to include some things it is not good for.
It does not necessarily produce a more civil society.
I’m repeating myself, but this point bears repeating. We can’t expect four years on campus to mold young people into gentlemen and ladies. It didn’t do it for the television talk show shouters or our Machiavellian politicians or cheap-shot entertainers—or even their professors.
It cannot guarantee higher earning power.
The statistical averages hold out hope—college grads do as a whole make more money than their less-educated peers. But with more and more graduates competing for jobs in a shrinking marketplace, a diploma is no sure-fire ticket to easy street. And, regrettably, some of the poorest pay goes to careers in the human services our society disparages even as it depends on them.
It doesn’t lead to higher morality.
There has been no shortage of white-collar crime recently, nor any lack of scandals among theologically trained clergy. A diploma, unfortunately, is not a seal of good behavior.
College graduates seem to think no more logically, reason no more sensibly, than anyone else.
Institutions like to boast they are teaching their students to think. This sounds good until you listen to their grads defend some political or religious bias. Like everybody else, they generally base their arguments on feelings and then try to make some kind of reasonable sense of them.
By now you may wonder what someone with such a negative view of education is doing back in the classroom.
Ah, but I’m not really negative. I just think we shouldn’t expect a college education to deliver what it can’t. I’m in the classroom again because of what higher education can deliver. I want to help students who are ready to learn and willing to discipline themselves reap the reachable rewards.
MY POSITIVE ANSWERS
So what do I think colleges are good for? What do I tell my own grandchildren? Here’s what.
Go to college as a step toward intellectual independence.
Conscientious parents usually want college to make certain their children will believe what they believe. If that doesn’t happen, they feel betrayed. What they may not understand, though, is that an honored purpose of higher education is to foster independent thinking, not religious or political conformity.
Educational institutions are not propaganda mills. The best of them will instead promote a search for truth that in turn demands and results in independent thinking.
I often think of Frederick Douglass, the great African-American leader of the Civil War era. When he was 6 or 7, Douglass, born of a black slave and a white father he never knew, was sent to a family in Baltimore. There his sympathetic mistress violated state laws to teach him the rudiments of reading. When her husband found out, he erupted. If she taught him “how to read, there would be no keeping him,” he said. “He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master.” Another version of the story has him saying, “If you learn him how to read, he’ll want to know how to write; and, this accomplished, he’ll be running away with himself.”
That’s exactly how it works. Teach slaves how to read and write and they’ll use their new skills to win their freedom. Teach students how to read and write and think and speak for themselves, and they will do just that. The bonus is that a well-furnished mind is never bored, seldom deceived, and a delight in itself.
I opt for students’ freedom, then, even if it means freedom to disagree with me—which my students do!
Go to college for help in growing up.
Growing up is not as natural as it sounds. Attaining intellectual freedom does not necessarily lead to moral, social, and spiritual maturity. There are many well-educated adolescents running around, some of them already in retirement.
Our children and grandchildren won’t leave campus as finished products. Even four years of disciplined study are not enough to effect complete maturity, not in the slow-growth spiritual and moral areas. But if they will, young people can make a good start there. For serious students, years on campus will engender a lifelong devotion to learning.
Notice the “if.” I have some friends who boast they never read a book. Too busy, they claim, for such a luxury. What they do not see, but others around them see, is that when curiosity wanes, the maturation process ebbs. One of my best friends quit serious reading when he left college. Unfortunately, he also quit growing intellectually, content to do what he’d always done, go only where he’d been before, and think what he’d always thought. Sad.
Other friends, though, are well into their retirement years. Their bodies are obviously in decline, but not their minds. They are interested and, therefore, interesting people, not only growing older but growing better.
College is a great place to prepare for a rich retirement.
Go to college to make friends.
Many of my lifelong friends and I got acquainted in college. Diversity is an oft-stated value of colleges and universities today. Colleges want on their campuses people from many countries and ethnic backgrounds. They believe such diversity enhances one’s social and intellectual life. I agree with them. My friends are a motley lot.
It’s also good to make friends among the dead. Many of my best ones I have never met in person. They died before I was born. I got to know them in the books they wrote or that were written about them.
Christians agree we need to be well acquainted with Jesus and Paul and King David and Moses and other biblical giants. We are also enriched when we number among our friends such diverse persons as Plato and Galileo and St. Francis and C. S. Lewis and George Eliot and William Shakespeare and Madame Curie and Albert Einstein and Frederick Douglass and a host of others who have given us, as Matthew Arnold put it, “the best that is known and thought in the world.”
When our children were home, we wanted them to be influenced by the best people we knew. Now that they are grown and have children of their own, we want that for our grandchildren. I’m especially hoping they’ll get to know many of our dead friends.
And our international friends. My grandkids’ world is bigger than mine was at their age. At the end of World War II, we Americans were sitting on top of the world. Even communism couldn’t bring us down. But the ideological and economic muscle of China and India and the Middle East demands we pay attention, as does the cry of the world’s hungry.
There are more than 7 billion human beings inhabiting this planet now. Most are barely subsisting. I hope my grandkids learn about them in college. And care enough to be their friends.
Go to college to make a life and not just a living.
My wish for my grandkids is that they’ll be among that fairly rare breed of persons whose life’s goal is not job security and money grubbing and accumulating stuff, but who want to learn how to genuinely love God and love their neighbors. That way they will discover joy.
I recently ran across (in Christian Standard) the thoughts of Arne Garborg, the Norwegian journalist and author. He’s right on: “For money you can have everything, it is said. No, that is not true. You can buy food, but not appetite; medicine, but not health; soft beds, but not sleep; knowledge, but not intelligence; glitter, but not comfort; fun, but not pleasure; acquaintances, but not friendship; servants, but not faithfulness; grey hair, but not honor; quiet days, but not peace. The shell of all things you can get for money. But not the kernel. That cannot be had for money.”
It’s that kernel that makes the difference between a life and a living, isn’t it? In our money-comes-first society, a good college teaches that life consists of more than accumulating and being “with it.” A steady diet of television and texting and tweeting and Facebooking will only mire one in the myth that what’s happenin’ now is all that matters. People need help to escape the tyranny of the present. They need, as G. K. Chesterton so sagely put it, to refuse “to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.”
Albert Einstein said nearly the same thing. “Somebody who reads only newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely nearsighted person who scorns eyeglasses. He is completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of his times, since he never gets to see or hear anything else.”
Go to college to get to know God better.
Behind everything I have written here is the simple conviction that a God-focused, truth-seeking life is living at its best, and that a good college education is a very good place to get started. It takes a lifetime, though, to get to know God right. I’m still trying to get better acquainted, after a lifetime of serious study that began in my undergraduate days. I have always been grateful for that helpful beginning.
Croatian-American theologian Miroslav Volf teaches that “truth can’t be found except by people who are interested in it.” That means all truth, of the Word and the world. So the best higher education experience is one that studies Scripture to hear God’s voice, studies science to learn God’s ways, studies the social sciences to understand human behavior, and studies the arts to appreciate and inspire creativity. All such study reverently undertaken draws one closer to him who said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
This is what a college education is good for.
LeRoy Lawson is international consultant with Christian Missionary Fellowship International and professor of Christian ministries at Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Johnson City, Tennessee. He also serves as a Christian Standard contributing editor and member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.