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On a College Education

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By James V. Schall, S. J.   
Tuesday, 06 September 2011

With myriads of students beginning or headed back to the thousands of colleges and universities throughout the world, some free advice seems in order. Except for e-mail, not much is “free” in academia these days, especially if we count the taxes required to pay for the “free” or “inexpensive” state and city institutions. Talk of college costs still going up when the economy does not is no longer mere grumbling. Studies indicate that this increased cost is caused more by administration expenses and remuneration than by faculty salaries or inflation.

The democratic spirit holds that everyone has a natural right to a college degree. Therefore, we need to assure that everyone receives one. If someone does not receive one, something is wrong with the system. Remedial programs must be necessary to compensate for the reasons why colleges do not graduate everyone.

We used to think that colleges were designed to separate those who could learn from those who could or would not. It was assumed that not everyone was fit for or needed a college education. Today, if someone does not receive such education, he is a “victim” and eligible for “compensation.”

Universities devise programs to deal with unemployable youth. Schools have also become holding operations to keep students from flooding the labor market, itself already flooded. The purpose of education is to provide students with “skills” and “qualifications” whereby they can enter the labor market or professions and “make a living.” To assist this process, the computer is everywhere. Not a few think that on-line universities are the wave of the future. We don’t need all these separate institutions. Why not a “national” on-line university?

Universities today are what I call resumé-generating institutions. Each student must keep a record of himself. On this document, he lists his accomplishments, not just academic ones. He was on the student council, played lacrosse, worked in a law office, helped in a soup kitchen, sang in the choir, studied in Paris, wrote for the student newspaper, reinvented the wheel, graduated cum laude, and canvassed for some political party.


    The President of the United States addresses the Georgetown Class of '24

Moreover, we have hundreds and hundreds of “majors” with their sub-fields. Grades have tended to flatten. Few people “flunk.” The four years of college are a “learning” experience. Meantime, the facilities on most college campuses are terrific. Many rival the local hotels or country clubs. Swimming pools, courts of every sort, libraries, technological facilities, gardens, fields, dorms, apartments, dining clubs and halls, concerts, lectures, plays abound. Beer and something stronger are easily available. So are other, more dubious activities.

If we look at this account, it makes the Lyceum of Aristotle or the Academy of Plato look like petty operations. Universities have in some sense become the institutions in which we expect to right all wrongs, preferably by what is called “science.” Universities are not in the “virtue” business today. They cannot be, as it is now mostly illegal, let alone old-fashioned. We have a widespread assumption that universities are centers of what is new. Science is what will improve us.

But a second assumption tells us that students need outside “hands-on experience.” They will not help the poor unless they join some program and volunteer, a kind of temporary vocation. This help industry has become big business with various “corps” designed to facilitate the projects, here and all over the world. The purpose of education is not knowledge or leisure but justice, the virtue with the most ideological confusions whirling about it.

With this background, what is to be said about college education? In his new book, Church, State, and Society, Brian Benestad remarks that reading Plato is a better preparation for getting at what was wrong with the world than any amount of hands-on education or experience.  This is especially true because Plato saw that the first task was our own virtue. No civil society can flourish if its citizens are not virtuous. This doctrine is not welcome in a world that sees no distinction between good and bad, excellent and shoddy, particularly with regard to how we live.

A colleague here at Georgetown wonders whether colleges and universities, as we know them, have seen their day. We do not need to equate the fate of intelligence with the fate of existing academic institutions. Indeed, the political conformity manifested in universities in recent decades has already shifted the locus of intelligence elsewhere.

Where is this “elsewhere?” At one time we might have looked to the monastic houses. China and the Arab countries indicate that on-line facilities are not exempt from government control. Perhaps we are back at the Academy and Lyceum, where education consisted in no facilities but a place to stroll, a teacher moved by what is, and young men and women willing to listen, read, and converse.


James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Mind That Is Catholic.

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Comments (22)Add Comment
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written by Gary Seaton, September 06, 2011
Thank you, as always, Fr. Schall, for lighting a candle. Peripatetic, indeed. I'm forwarding this essay to two nephews who start college today at "State U @ P'ville". I hope their education is such that in twenty years they will appreciate this essay. I'm not optimistic it will be, but I am hopeful.
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written by Yezhov, September 06, 2011
College students, the refuse of the retail trade of higher education.
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written by Achilles, September 06, 2011
Excellent, as usual Fr. Schall. I am not sure how this will go over with the educational experts, but that there are many here that will appreciate this truth is a solace.
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written by stanley zylowski, September 06, 2011
"No civil society can flourish if its citizens are not virtuous."

I wonder if this has even been put to the test. Not that I disagree with it, but demonstraion of it would go a long way.

s.
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written by stanley zylowski, September 06, 2011
My pie-in-the-sky wish:

That the trubles in the college athletic departments will produce a leader in the area of higher education that will both put athletics in its proper perspective on campus and academics as well.
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written by Achilles, September 06, 2011
Stanly, of course this has been put to the test, but If you want first hand proof, try this with your family. Look at Zimmerman's 3 types of families, trustee, domestic and atomistic and simply observe the differences, a blind man could see it.
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written by Adam, September 06, 2011
The synopsis: "...reading Plato is a better preparation for getting at what was wrong with the world than any amount of hands-on education or experience. This is especially true because Plato saw that the first task was our own virtue. No civil society can flourish if its citizens are not virtuous. This doctrine is not welcome in a world that sees no distinction between good and bad, excellent and shoddy, particularly with regard to how we live."

I had hoped that Fr. Schall would dwell on this point a bit more. The essay is alas, all too brief, and stops short of any sort of conclusion. Which - if I might be so bold - would lead to (JPII might remind us "through") the family. The family as formator of our youth, as the domestic church, and as the original university of "hands on experience" in the successes and failues of living the virtues.

The renewal of culture requires virtuous citizens - of this I have no doubt. But we ought not look to Universities to generate/form/develop such people, but rather our very own families. This truth is utterly, utterly, utterly simple, and to the same degree profound, and one might argue, to a similar degree difficult. Because - and this is really the point to which turn a deaf ear - we desperately need virtuous parents, in the hopes that we might form virtuous youth.
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written by Laura, September 06, 2011
Visiting a foreign country such as Poland and Germany helps put into perspective many aspects of what ails America! We have skirted socialism for 80plus years. Poland was redeemed by Solidarity and John Paul II and Reagan. But Poland was divided in the mid 1700's between Prussia, Russia and Austria for 200 years and then Stalin annexed Poland until Solidarity in 1989...the Russians finally left in 1993. You would think there would be no distinct Polska left. My first impression of what makes Poland unique, came after my first trip in 2008 and my second in Aug 2011. Catholic Faith-(God), Family, Community and Country upheld them despite all the ills that have beset Poland in its 1200 years since becoming the First christianized Slavic country. Socialism and democracy are being practiced today because no one there really knows what total free enterprise in a democracy means. But you should see the many ways that Poland is leading the way. Does America need to be brought to its knees to open our eyes so we can see the gift that America is to the World? The Answers lay in the youth of our country now starting college who will no longer accept Shoddiness over excellence, who will not be satisfied with what is left of a great America where everyone was welcome who dreamed the American dream. There are answers to what ails us but we can no longer be a country of users and takers and not be willing to work to make US great again. Let's all work to help these young American citizens have a country that is a beacon of virtue, generosity and goodness that no longer accepts being anything but the BEST.
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written by Ann, September 06, 2011
Perhaps we are back at the Academy and Lyceum, where education consisted in no facilities but a place to stroll, a teacher moved by what is, and young men and women willing to listen, read, and converse.


Hmmm. Reminds me of the homeschool families I know...
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written by Jason Fairifeld, September 07, 2011
Yezhov, your comments...you put a blanket rebuke on what best should be cautiously done on a case to case basis, and even then...the first impulse for rebuking others should be mercy!

My story, I am a grad student at SIU in computer science. I wanted to go back to school, working in a difficult job that didn't make wide use of my skills but was fearful of the expense. It took external events for me to make the plunge. I understand the risks, and I understand that it will take more than a degree to find my place in life. Thankfully there is a good newmann center here to help me keep my focus.

What awaits me, God only knows, I only hope I finish what I started and hope for the best.

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written by Mittens, September 07, 2011
Why so bitter? Passed over for tenure? Everyone in your department ignores you? The "quality" of your writing suggests one of your problems. ;-)
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written by Achilles, September 07, 2011
Mittens, might I suggest that perhaps the problem is the quality of your reading?
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written by Duke, September 07, 2011
We're in for a long, painful period of cutting the fat in all public institutions. What will make it worse is the resistance of those in charge to cutting the real waste. So instruction will suffer in higher education as bureaucracy and "research" are protected. States need to consider vouchers to students to replace direct funding of institutions - lots of luck!
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written by TheInformer, September 07, 2011
Yes, as a very wise friend (John Langley) once said, why not have local neighborhoods where the students, and interested adults, get together regularly to read, and to discuss. Who wouldn't love intense learning throughout life?

Why is it assumed that simply because someone has spent years jumping through higher education hoops "to get that piece of paper" as a different cynical friend, now teaching at Geo. Mason U, such a person is automatically sagacious?
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written by Joshua, September 07, 2011
"We do not need to equate the fate of intelligence with the fate of existing academic institutions."

As students adapt, it will be helpful if they rise above the institutions that try to hold them down and suck tuition out of them. In taking control of their academic life, such students will also need to take care of the spiritual habits as they search for a better way to live. (see http://www.uncollege.org/)
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written by Rockerbabe, September 07, 2011
I'm not sure what the point of this article is, except to castigate secular institutions of higher learning. There certainly was no recommendations of any merit being presented.

Try getting and keeping a decent paying job, let alone get a promotion if one does not have an education or even training in a skilled trade that is in demand. Learning is not a luxury, but a necessity in today's world of high technology and global expanse. I think today's schools, the students, their parents and other interested parties are just trying to figure out the next move. Casting dispersions on their motivations is not productive nor is it charitable.
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written by MPSchneiderLC, September 07, 2011
The point is blatantly obvious. Universities are now for resumees not for learning.

Why are a huge percentage, possibly a majority, of college students on psycho-pharmeceutical drugs?

Why is there this rush to get into colleges because of their name?

Why do we no longer value trades?

Why do the vast majority just cram rather than studying?

Obviously, Fr Schall hasn't answered these questions in two pages but he has opened the door for those who want to think.
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written by Jason Fairfield, September 07, 2011
Re: Duke
Research is not in and of itself wrong, there are many good questions that professors and the grad students that serve them seek to answer. Granted, there is bad research too, but the key is one has to consider the cases in detail. The recourse of the common individual is to explore the quality and vote with their wallet.

Re: Others
And students, yes...there are students that don't come to the great blessing of higher education (yes, I firmly believe that even with it's faults (and needing reformation), higher education is a blessing to the world) with the proper outlook, some use it frivolously, but there are those who take it seriously.

Me, well, I have been doing well and learning much, but I do play minecraft more than I should....:P

Personally, if I am ever to have children, I would strongly recommend that he or she works full time for a couple years to better learn what will be demanded of them in the real world. Such experience, IMHO, would be valuable and would make them more serious students.

Ultimately, a value of the university (and its individual departments) is in its students and faculty and the ideals they hold. I personally did not choose SIU, I came here out of a necessity beyond my control, but I have come to love being here and hope the best for this university, its faculty and students.
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written by jason taylor, September 07, 2011

"I wonder if this has even been put to the test. Not that I disagree with it, but demonstraion of it would go a long way."

Venice managed about a thousand years with a notoriously unchaste, and avaricious population. They did however have civic virtues like patriotism, respect for the law, and a ruling class that was not quite as grossly corrupt as that of the states nearby.
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written by Dan, September 08, 2011
"Universities today are what I call resumé-generating institutions."
Indeed. But do they not exist to pad the resumés of the the professors as much as the students? If you have a book or article that you wish to publish, is it not advantageous to be, "a member of the Faculty of Institute of Social Sciences, Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome, from 1964–77, a member of the Government Department, University of San Francisco, from 1968-77, and a member of the Government Department at Georgetown University since 1977" rather than, "some guy who read Plato and thought about it for a while".
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written by Stanley, September 08, 2011
The discussion on Poland was nice. In Russia/Soviet Union, it was common for students to come to exams with a gift, usually money for the professor.


Thanks for responses - Jason, Achilles
I have seen the opposite put to the test. What a bad society forces it citizens to do for basic necessities in Soviet Union etc. But we were taught that the people are good but the system is bad.
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written by M., September 10, 2011
Fr Schall knows we need to invest our precious energies into institutions that have a future, that equip our children with the tools to actually live life. If a great political philosopher like Fr Schall conscientiously recommends this course of action I'm on board. Thomas Aquinas College Cal. is being lifted up I suppose just by standing still.

Fr Pavone (who met with PBXVI recently)
‎".it is time for people to leave their professions, it is time for students to leave their universities, it is time for people to band together and to dedicate themselves on a full time basis to ending the disaster that continues in our midst day after day -- the slaughter of innocent children. It's time to dedicate ourselves full time to ending this." Fr Pavone (met with PBXVI recently)

“Such a life was ‘corrupt’, defined by that term Socrates used in speaking to Crito, in analogy for organic corruption. The parts of an organism cannot be healthy if the whole was corrupt, and the whole cannot be but corrupt if the parts were not integrated positively into a whole.”

"A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead . . . was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. . . . This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another — doubtless quite different — St. Benedict." -- Alisdair MacIntyre, "After Virtue"

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