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What is college for, anyway? December 30, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben has been thinking a lot about colleges lately, since Silence Dogood and I have dear friends with kids struggling to get some good out of their college experience and others who are struggling to get into a college that might help them further their dreams.

Our friend Ben’s own experience trying to get into colleges back in the day made me quite cynical about the whole experience. My parents, who were both scholarly and otherworldly, believed that the point of going to college was to get a well-rounded education. And since the youthful Ben loved nothing more than learning, loved learning practically anything, especially the liberal arts and natural sciences, and had a great aptitude for learning, it never occurred to me to doubt them. I was looking forward to soaking up knowledge the way a sponge looks forward to water. At least, until I started applying to schools and going for interviews.

Mind you, I had superb grades and SAT scores and had aced a number of high-level college courses at an excellent university while still in high school, as well as having participated in a number of extracurricular educational opportunities. I had always carried a packed course load of challenging courses. College applications? Piece of cake.

But cake wasn’t quite the substance our friend Ben encountered when I went to interview at one prestigious Southern school. “All our applicants have superb grades and SAT scores,” the interviewer informed me. “What matters to us is community service. What have you done for your community? Where have you volunteered? What’s your experience with politics?” Our friend Ben, a 17-year-old intellectual prodigy who lived in a Colonial home with highly educated parents far from any urban center (it took an hour for me to get to my high school in Nashville by bus), was struck utterly dumb. Community service? Volunteering? Politics? What did that have to do with education?!

Fortunately, not every school took this attitude, and our friend Ben was accepted in every other school to which I applied, ultimately attending four and amassing a number of advanced degrees. But the shock I experienced during that interview at Duke University was not lost on me or my family. As it happened, my younger brother was exactly four years behind me in school, just entering his high school years. Armed with the information I’d gained to my cost and chagrin, he got a very different education. He interned for one of our Senators. He was on his school’s debate team, went to an exclusive golf camp, and did everything he and our parents could devise to gain the broadest possible credentials. Four years later, he was accepted into every Ivy League college, and I’m happy to say has gone on to a most distinguished career.

Which brings me back to the question that troubled me during that long-ago interview, and that sickens me now: What does community service have to do with education? Well, nothing, obviously. Then why does it matter? Ah. It took our friend Ben far too many years to come to the answer to this question, and it’s an answer that I still find embittering. After my post-graduate degrees, I went into a rather specialized form of nonfiction publishing and found myself boosted up the corporate ladder despite myself. Once I reached the executive level, I belatedly came upon the answer to my question, and I felt like the most naive person on earth.

That’s because my parents’ focus on education and my own love of learning had prevented me from seeing universities as corporations which, like every corporation, exist to amass money and profits. Doh!!! If you’re a university corporation, what kind of applicants do you want? The scholarly types who actually want to go to college to be educated? Hell, no. You want the ones who have or are pretty certain to have connections, a social network, social prominence: The ones who’ll make a ton of money and give it to your school and who’ll make lots of prominent friends and influence them to do likewise. It’s all about money, folks, though socially prominent and/or newsworthy alums certainly don’t hurt, either.*

Well, maybe it’s not all about money. When some exceptional and exceptionally bright kids I know decided that they wanted to get into really good schools, our friend Ben went online and checked out the Ivy League schools’ SAT requirements. A perfect SAT score is now 2400 points. Harvard, in its infinite generosity, apparently will allow its applicants a whopping 30-point deviance from that perfect score. Yale’s less exacting—if memory serves, it has a 65-point tolerance. And so it goes.

Sometimes, perceptual bias can create even more outrageous situations. One of my former bosses—a natural blonde of Scandinavian heritage, with considerable intellectual ambitions—told me that when she went to interview at a prominent college in the Philadelphia area, she was told point blank that “we don’t want any blonde cheerleader types at this school.” One word on that: Grrrrr!

I don’t know about you, but our friend Ben thinks there are other things to consider than a SAT score or one’s future social prominence and net worth (or, say, one’s appearance). But there’s also the other side, and I think it’s just as bad: The perception that the only purpose of college is to prepare you for a very narrow, specialized field of employment.

Back in the day, the colleges that served this purpose were the vo-tech schools, vocational-technical, and they were unambiguous in their goal: You went there for two years to learn how to become an electrician or plumber or carpenter or mechanic or chef. These are specialized skills, and the whole focus of your education was to master them. These schools were (and hopefully still are) superb at what they do, preparing their students to succeed in their chosen field. But they don’t pretend to offer an academic education. Chaucer and Buffon or Beowulf and Roland aren’t exactly relevant when you’re trying to determine if a SUV will pass inspection or are in a field conducting a perk test.

Unfortunately, these days, a broad education doesn’t seem relevant in most colleges and universities. Even back when our friend Ben was in college, this shift was occurring: A friend of mine majored in history, and then, unable to find a better job, applied for a job as a bank teller. In her job interview, the interviewer stared at her resume, stared at her, and said, “A history major? Why did you even go to college?” Silence’s undergraduate degree is in French, with a specialty in 18th Century French literature. One of her French professors informed her that “There are two options for [one assumes female] French majors: teach or marry.” When our friend Ben applied to graduate school for an advanced degree in English/creative writing at a prestigious school, I was accepted but informed that “There are no jobs for English majors. You’re welcome to come and study, but don’t consider it a step towards employment.”

Then, of course, there’s the current cost of a college education. Our friend Ben and Silence have friends who are still paying off their college educations. We constantly read stats on the cost of raising a child, and the costs that boost the numbers into the hundreds of thousands of dollars are for college education. Our friend Rob, who teaches at a community college, tells us that community colleges are undergoing a renaissance for this very reason: They’re flexible and affordable. He says that 50% of U.S. college students now attend community colleges, and no wonder.  

So what is college for, anyway? Our friend Ben won’t even pretend to have the answer. I will say that the broad education I secured during my own undergraduate and graduate years has stood me in good stead my whole life, both personally and professionally. If I had to come up with an answer at gunpoint, I’d say that college helps prepare you to be an adult. It hones your social and life skills while enhancing your education and critical abilities. But is that, ultimately, enough? 

Our friend Ben feels for my friends’ kids currently applying and going through the educational process. And I look with interest to see what colleges will become in the future. Because one thing is certain: I’m sure their role will change.

* To be fair, universities and colleges could well point out that the purpose of amassing money in their cases is to endow chairs, fund scholarships, bring in top professors, and further the cause of education. But if the price of this is to turn away the very students whose primary goal is to become educated, I’d say something’s gone awry.