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What Is a College Education For?

And what price are you willing for your kids to pay for learning?

Continuing the conversation about the crisis in the humanities, commenting on the “Armageddon for the Anti-Humanists” post, reader Kale Zelden writes:

When nothing is at stake (except careerism) NOTHING happens. I teach at a Catholic boarding school with a commitment to teaching primary sources and the whole cast of DWEM’s. I have students every year who fall in love with Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, and Joyce. There are a handful that tell me they want to study literature in college. I never know what to say. Any place that would still witness to the love of literature (or philosophy, or history, or theology) like a University of Dallas, would be considered too marginal for this East Coast crowd. I opted for a terminal MA in English largely due to a moment in a 18th Century satire class. It was towards the end of semester and we had to share with the seminar what we wanted to pursue for our culminating paper. Several of us had in the prior week joked about Super Mario Brothers as a working out of post structuralist theory. On a whim my friend proposed just that as his topic. The teacher went ga-ga over it. He was seriously jazzed on it. He was serious, even though my friend was half-way joking.

That was it.

That professor is a humanities suicide bomber.

This post raises an important, uncomfortable question for parents of college students and potential college students: What is a college education for? 

It’s not uncomfortable for people who believe that a college education is meant to advance one’s status and wealth in the world. For them, education is about credentialism and networking. They have no difficulty wanting their kids to go to the most elite colleges, because an elite diploma is a great credential, and you meet the kind of people there who are going to run the world one day. This is how you join their tribe.

I think there must be no small number of parents, though, who would find such an instrumentalist mentality to be vulgar. Education, they believe, is about broadening the mind, deepening the soul. If they don’t really believe that, at least they know that’s what they are supposed to believe, and they would flinch before the naked careerism and status-seeking of the other crowd.

And yet, what do they really believe for their own kids?

Let’s note that there is nothing wrong with a parent wanting their child to emerge from college able to support themselves. A friend who graduated from the University of Dallas, and who volunteered as a mentor to male students there, once told me he was often frustrated in that task. Too many of these young men, he said, had their heads so high in the clouds that they didn’t notice the importance of being able to stand on their own two feet. They all wanted to marry and have families one day, but it had not occurred to them that very few people get paid to sit around philosophizing and theologizing all the livelong day. Their idealism was admirable in most respects, but it needed to be grounded, he believed. I agree.

That said, Zelden’s point about colleges that still believe in and teach the humanities in a traditional vein being “too marginal” for the families of his students strikes a nerve. These parents care enough about their children’s educations to send them to a Catholic Great Books boarding school, but wouldn’t send their kids to a college they considered to be third-rate in terms of advancing their careers and status. I’m sure parents like this rationalize their choices in all sorts of ways, but the hard question they are avoiding is the one that’s the subject line of this post.

Let me be more clear here. Reader David J. White, who teaches in the Classics Department at Baylor, wrote on an earlier humanities thread:

Many of us who teach the humanities at the college level are realizing that the real future for our subjects — which is not the same our “disciplines” — might rest with homeschooling families, private schools, and small liberal-arts colleges.

What would you be willing for your child to suffer (“suffer”) to get a classical liberal arts education? Your daughter loves literature, and wants to study it at the college level. You know that if she goes to an elite school, they’re going to turn her into a poststructuralist ideologue, and either rob her of her passion for truth and beauty, or corrupt it through ideological re-education. But you also know that if she goes to a “marginal” school, there will be a significant opportunity cost in terms of career advancement and status.

She has acceptance letters from Yale and the University of Dallas (or some other small, perhaps Christian, liberal arts college in the classical mold), and can’t decide between them. Paying for her degree is not an issue here. She asks you to make the decision for her. What do you tell her? Why?

UPDATE: There are some good comments on this thread, on both sides of the issue. This one from Michael Guarino, though, is a keeper, one that will help me and Julie think through these issues when the time comes:

I strongly disagree with the necessity of the choice between the University of Dallas and Yale. This is not because I think elite academia is doing a severe disservice to the humanities, but because I think the negative effects of that trend are easy to avoid as an undergraduate. Here is what I recommend.

1) Do not settle for a standard high school education. I think a major reason why a lot of English majors are persuaded by poststructuralism is simply lack of philosophical sophistication when they first encounter it. The thing is, it is not difficult to get a cursory background in philosophy. Simple books likeThe Philosopher’s Toolkit are available. The techniques that are necessary to question a lot of poststructuralism are relatively simple. So learn them.

And don’t simply ignore the philosophical bases on which literary theory is built. Even if you come to conclude that poststructuralist literary theory is worthless, it is worth understanding the arguments so you can identify them in strange domains or so you can refute them persuasively. They are often presented very charismatically, conflating philosophy and ideology. So you need to be precise and erudite in questioning it.

2) Do not be an English major alone (or perhaps any humanities major). Most of the hooplah over critical theory is concentrated in English departments, who have a reputation of being slow to give up on dying trends. They were the last scholars studying Freud and Lacan, not because their psychological and philosophical ideas remained persuasive but because they loved the criticism they could do with them.

Even within the humanities, if you were to receive a philosophy degree you would encounter the Continental/Analytic divide in philosophy. The two schools are incredibly different, and while I would not swallow the Analytic tradition entirely (its dogmatic materialism is disappointing), understanding the work in that tradition can help you understand the weaknesses in the Continental tradition, which largely inspires the looney humanities.

Actually, majoring across disciplines is probably great advice to understand the modern academy. A huge influence on the state of the academy is specialization. Disciplines oftentimes have their own house understandings of knowledge and how it is created and presented, and it is important to understand how these form. I majored in philosophy, and took a lot of philosophy of science. I also majored in a theoretical science and did research in an empirical science. It was interesting to follow the tensions between different understandings of science in those disciplines, all of which were ultimately going to be false. A stronger picture is formed by a meta-analysis of their tensions than by falling victim to one in isolation of the others. But this would take too long to discuss.

3) Hack your distribution requirements. Many people bemoan their existence, since they seem inferior to the rigor of the core system at Columbia or University of Chicago (is it still in place there?), but they do help to insulate students from trendy nonsense that a foolish administrator might consider necessary. You can meet your distribution requirements without taking any “* studies” course. So don’t. Similarly, if you met recommendation 1 and perhaps 2, you should be able to infer the philosophical tendencies of a course from its description, and decide whether it is worth your time. Also, most disciplines will offer survey courses that are very informative and often devoid of politics. I really enjoyed an English Literature survey course, which made no effort to marginalize TS Eliot at the expense of, say, female writers of color. Which was important because I had not read Eliot’s poetry deeply at the time.

4) Engage your community. In my first couple years in college, I was a head-in-the-clouds philosophy student. But I also was interested in religion and more grounded issues, how ideas shape human existence. One of the most dissuasive things I found about the philosophical presuppositions I had was that they did nothing to inform my friends. If an idea has no existential application, it is useless. I feel like the same is true of the rot in the humanities. Its philosophy is optimized to provide clever, unique criticism, but not create insightful, unique people. If you retain that focus, and you should!, then you will always find the philosophy of the modern academy lacking and seek to supplant it with a new one. But if you lose touch of the world outside the academy and life outside of books, it is difficult to know where you might end up.

5) Don’t get a PhD in the humanities. This is the most disappointing one, but it is the truth. Your career will be dependent on playing the games of the discipline. If that game is fatuous leftist politics, don’t play. Philosophy is a slightly different story, but after receiving the major, it should be clear how dead the discipline is in the Anglophone world and that you should not waste your career on it. But proving that would require a longer comment.

6) Get a passing understanding of science. Most of the big issues in the future are going to be created by the tension between utilitarian technology and humanism. Should we genetically engineer humans? Well, this will lead to a subjugation of human existence to human taste all the way to the biological level. But it will also help eradicate genetic diseases like cancer and ALS. Humanism and utilitarianism. But it will be very difficult to discuss these issues without understanding the technology itself and its possibilities. Get that background.

You should probably also learn a good bit of mathematics. It is the language of science. Even in policy circles, debates frequently assume knowledge of Bayesian inference and other more sophisticated probabilistic methods.

This was basically the strategy I settled on in my undergraduate career. It is absurd that I had to do all this to get what I considered to be an adequate education. There is no denying the failure of the university in that regard. But it is still a great tool in the pursuit of knowledge, and an elite university will have even more resources for an independent student to utilize.

UPDATE.2: I thought this comment by Erin Manning was also excellent, particularly its devastating opening (which believe me, I took to heart):

Well, my advice (having done the small Catholic college/liberal arts degree myself, only to learn what a tragic mistake it was for someone of my social and income level to have spent so much money just to read and discuss books I would have read and discussed just fine without classes):

Unless you are wealthy enough for University of Dallas (approx. $50,000 a year, not counting the Rome semester) or Yale (approx. $63,000 a year, not counting the therapy afterward-kidding, kidding!), then get your college degree as cheaply as possible and for heaven’s sake, don’t get a degree that essentially tells your future prospective employers that you are brilliant but completely unemployable.

There are a tiny handful of people who are suited in life to become true literary scholars of the sort who will go on to teach literature. Unfortunately, there are about twice as many such people as there are jobs in literature. The half who do not get jobs in the higher levels of academia must go back and get teaching certificates so they can try to interest barely-literate high school students in the works of Shakespeare or Milton until they give up and assign “The Hunger Games” instead, or else they skip teaching altogether and end up selling houses, or cars, or jewelry, or shoes, or “Pampered Chef” cookware–none of which they do particularly well because people who love to read and discuss classic works of literature rarely have the personalities to do well in sales.

So unless you are willing to cultivate, alongside the mild-mannered Jekyll who wishes nothing more of life than to get paid to re-read his favorite books and discuss them with bright young college students, the ruthless and egotistical Hyde who will learn the petty games of academic favor-currying and party politics and excel at the back-stabbing of anybody who might be more brilliant or write more impressive books while his grad-students teach all of his classes until the great prize known as “tenure” has finally been won, you will not justify that huge expense in pursuit of a literary degree (and let’s not forget that you have to add at least a master’s if not a Ph.D. to the skill set).

And even if money is really no object, and Yale vs. UD is a realistic set of choices, there looms the possibility that the education bubble really is set to burst, and that you may pay two to three hundred thousand dollars for a degree only to learn that you will never earn that amount back, and that your successors at those same schools aren’t paying nearly as much as you did (which will make them more competitive when it comes to fighting you for those rare jobs where “Be a literary scholar” is the first requirement).



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