Monday, March 23, 2015

Is college necessary? (Part One of 1,000--an ongoing discussion)

In my last post (In the absence of leisure, where is art?), I reinforced the conceit that people who are "cultured" (i.e., read books) go to college. But is college really necessary?

It's an argument--and an essay--that I've tried to work up but haven't completed for a couple of years now, since my son was facing student loan debt for his last year of college (all parental college funds being depleted). Did he really need to finish a history degree that was going to cost him nearly $20K if he was going into the performing arts and didn't have a good (not just minimum wage) job at the ready?

My argument was weakened by the fact that I graduated with a degree in Western Civilization--perhaps one of the more frivolous majors, in terms of making money afterwards and/or in having something to talk about with regular people on the bus. (In my experience, few people outside the university environment have heard of Catullus or want to talk about the Aeneid.) I was so intent on learning that I didn't understand, once it was all over, that the world hadn't changed while I was changing--it was indifferent to my acquisition of knowledge. It merely asked, as it had before: Could I type? Serve food? Clean houses?

One difference is that I didn't have to go into debt to get a degree. Debt seems unavoidable now. Yet colleges continue to churn out the same kind of skills for their humanities majors--reading books and writing papers--that few businesses need and that, unless the graduate wants to be go to graduate school or become a professor, have few real-world applications. And few real-world continuations: how many times have I read Catullus in the original Latin over the years since college? Once? Twice?

Yet how could I deny him the experience that I still maintain (marketability be damned!) changed my life?

So I dropped my not very firm argument and let him take on his own debt. And I think now it was the best decision he could make, despite the fact that he is living at home working part-time as a barista (the best job he could find after searching for several months) and facing a 10-year loan pay-off. He grew intellectually. He made connections. He tried new things. All the things one hopes will happen at college.

Is college necessary for other people? Can you educate yourself and find a way to be intellectually engaged outside a campus? I think so, but that's the subject for a future post. It's a challenge for college graduates as well--how to maintain a level of intellectual curiosity away from a university environment and not get sated with empty cultural calories.

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