On a College Education

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. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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