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What is college for?

1 May was National College Decision Day in the U.S. – the deposit deadline for admission into many U.S. colleges and universities. Early indications suggest that we’re poised for a fifth straight year of declining enrollments. In the Atlantic earlier this year, Alia Wong pointed out that this trend continues the widening gap between high school graduation and college enrollment in this country: in 2013-14, 82 percent of high school seniors made it to graduation (an all time high), yet only 66 percent immediately enrolled in college (down from 69 percent in 2008). As social scientists and educators continue sifting the data for causes, it is worth asking some big questions.  What is education supposed to do?  Why go to college anyway?

In this pluralistic age – allergic to overarching, one-size-fits-all accounts of anything – it is very difficult to name a singular purpose for the lengthy exposure to the fields of expert knowledge we call a college education. Yet for the cultural architects of liberal education, this singular purpose was – and could only be – a definite human good.  For Aristotle, it was the happiness that comes with contemplation of the truth. For Augustine it was properly ordered affection for God and neighbor. In effect, these goods create reasons to endure the crucible, to invest financially, and most importantly, reasons to put energy into the project of becoming one’s best self.

So the question must become: What visions of a good human being will guide higher education into the new millennium? I say visions because the history of liberal education supplies no uniform definition of this good. And there is deep disagreement within our educational institutions today. This is a good thing. I don’t mean that as a banal appeal to pluralism or relativism. For to recognize plurality and to disagree with one another is an achievement that will clarify the visions that animate our institutions – often encrusted in mission statements or left to individual teachers. Disagreement helps refine understanding and make our visions worthy of college students’ lives.

Still, what unites the longstanding tradition of liberal education, stretching back at least as far as ancient Greece, is a disposition to answer this mega-question in terms of the moral and intellectual virtues that educators cultivate in their students. Such virtues are the excellences of soul that one gains through sustained, intentional practice. Liberal education – whether in its classical pagan, medieval Christian, or modern humanist phases – has furnished us with an extraordinary list of virtues. Like stars in the night sky, each virtue tells the story of a particular constellation within our historical firmament of goods. Taken as an illuminated map to the human pursuit, they help travelers discover the way to education, to realized humanity.

Image credit: University Life 169 by Francisco Osorio, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

The most compelling voices reassessing the reason for higher education today are those authors who bring virtue – rather than professionalism – into view. Martha Nussbaum retrieves Socratic self-examination and Stoic duty to humanity, updated to the tasks of liberal education and democracy in the developing world, in her book Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education. James K.A. Smith reimagines a broadly Christian anthropology – rooted in the writings of Augustine of Hippo – that connects love of learning with the highest human vocation of love for God and neighbor in his book Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, Cultural Formation. William Deresiewicz renews the Romantic virtues of authenticity, imagination, and empathy in the face of hollowed careerism and priestly academic specialization in his book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. These are the voices that deserve our ears. Forward looking and attuned to the global and economic demands of contemporary higher education, they are appreciative nevertheless of the riches of our inheritance.

In my own work as director of the great books curriculum at a small university outside of Portland, Oregon, I am continually surprised by the interest in our program from students in the STEM disciplines and professional majors. These students and their families choose to devote significant time and money to pursue a liberal arts curriculum only when they see the connection between our curriculum and the character formation it drives.

To be sure, material benefits are essential to a complete vision of human flourishing. Yet our default vision of the good life today is too often restricted to consideration of material accomplishment – resumés, salaries, and zip codes.  If we do not have a rich understanding of what education is for, we’ll lose more than mere enrollment counts. We don’t need merely smarter, wealthier, or more politically civilized people. We need good people. We need higher education to reclaim its distinctive role in moral formation – in the transition from youth to adulthood – situated at the crossroads of family, religious community, workplace, and state. The task now is renewing the conversation about the sorts of excellence that characterize the good people we want to form. Education without moral vision is no education at all.

Header image credit: College by Jacob Roeland, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

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