College When?

It is a major weakness of our current educational system that most of our advanced education, especially in the humanities, comes when students are least able to learn from it: during those dark years we call adolescence.

Many people look back upon their college years and think:  “If I only had the maturity then that I have now! I could have gotten so much more out of college.”  Many of America’s students report feeling they were only really ready to begin their college education when they had finally finished the four years when they were supposed to be getting that education.

In his book The First Year Out: Understanding American Teens After High School, sociologist Timothy Clydesdale reports that, although many colleges and universities claim they get students to reflect on the “big questions of life,” most students are too busy with what Clydesdale calls the Daily Life Management Game to consider these questions seriously.

Clydesdale pictures America’s college students, especially during their first year, as seated at a “wobbly table.”  Two pedestals support this table: one which represents the new economic realities of global America, and the other which represents the popular culture of mainstream American.  The table is “wobbly” for two reasons: partly because the moral culture pedestal is starting to crack and partly because the new economic realities pedestal has an internal hydraulic lift that raises or lowers its end of the table erratically.

There are two items on this metaphorical “table”:  one is what Clydesdale calls the “identity lockbox” into which college students place their “religious, political, racial, gender, and class identities for safekeeping.”  The other item “is a complex but engaging board game known as daily life management,” consisting of a myriad of different pieces and complicated rules involving relationships with peers, family, and various authority figures; money to be earned, managed, and spent; activities to choose and navigate; re-fueling needs, and, at some point much lower down on the list, classes to get through.

When professors (such as myself) ask students to reflect on the “fundamental questions” of life, the most common response is to quickly shove those questions into their identity lock-box for safekeeping, sensing that any serious consideration of those questions might tip over their already wobbly table.

Some parents might consider this refusal a good thing – “Don’t get side-tracked; your purpose is to graduate!” – except the common result is students who are sleep-walking through college with no sense of purpose or meaning, getting little or nothing out of an extravagantly expensive four years.

Make no mistake:  I love my students.  They enchant me.  Being allowed to teach them is one of the greatest joys and privileges of my life.  But do I believe they are getting the education they need and deserve?  I fear not.


What do they need?  Academically, they need to be able to read analytically and write clear literate prose. They need to be able to recognize an argument and formulate one of their own.  They need to be able to analyze and apply ideas from one source to a problem in another, think logically, and do basic mathematics.  These are all valuable, but two other things are actually more important.

The first is that a student must “have the lights on.”  They have to care.  If education is seen as something they “get through” to get a largely meaningless credential – their “entry slip” to enter the corporate rat race rather than as a place to develop needed skills and wisdom – then they cannot and will not get an education.

The second thing a prospective student needs is maturity.  Another way of putting this would be to say, they need to grow up: become dependable adults who take responsibility for themselves and for the common good of the community of which they are members.

How does that happen?  One answer is they need to develop the virtues: wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage.  How can they develop these virtues they so desperately need?

Answer:  Adolescents need to spend time with adults if they are ever going to learn to be adult.  They need the experience of working with and for other people. They need to work within a group in which their well-being depends upon others doing their jobs well and in which the well-being of others depends upon them doing their jobs well.  They need to mature by training in a craft in which excellence is demanded and expected.

Young adults need to deal with the messiness of the real, material world and with people who are very different from themselves.  Instead of going right into management, right to being the “boss,” or right to the abstractions of the office and engagement with technology such as spreadsheets, they need to see the difference between “virtual reality” and concrete stuff or real persons.

We have built up a culture of “sophomoric” managers (“wise fools”: fools who take themselves to be wise) who think that managing a business is like moving numbers around on a spreadsheet or playing with on-line simulations.  Reality confounds them when it should amaze, delight, and challenge them.

College is best when populated by adults.  Twenty-five years or older would probably be good.  People who have served their country or with experience at a serious job making something concrete would also be good.  Financial aid to groups other than teenagers coming right out of high school would be essential, as would basic affordability so these people can start families.

The “college experience” as it has become since the 1960s and 1970s is “unsustainable,” to use a popular piece of contemporary jargon.  Worse yet, it is often unhealthy. Depending on where you send them, it is like paying extravagant amounts of money to a group of serially convicted child molesters to raise your children during one of the most critical stages of their development.

If you love them, don’t do that.  Make sure they’re ready and then choose wisely.


*Image: Aristotle Lectures His Students by Laurentius de Voltolina, c. 1350 [Museum of Prints and Drawings (Kupferstichkabinett), Berlin]

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.