Sunday, June 14, 2015

College is not a commodity....and other thoughts

I couldn’t agree more with Hunter Rawlings—college is not a commodity. If the whole college experience had been commoditized, Harvard would have closed years ago, or it would have survived as a quaint, niche place with an almost unbelievable history and a stadium named after Lamborghini, its principal benefactor.

I desperately endorse Rawlings’ observation that students have to make a personal commitment to making their college experience worthwhile.

Nevertheless, I think Rawlings is preaching to the choir, and maybe the wrong choir at that.

My evolving view is that too many people and too many incompetent (I’ll define this in a sec) people are going to college for reasons that have nothing to do with intellectual enrichment and a love affair with the Trivium and the Quadrivium. I love the idea of a liberal arts education and I’m still working on improving mine. Nevertheless, I think we must acknowledge that the concept of a liberal arts college education is not the concept embraced by lots of folks who are in college or who think they want to go to college (or whose parents are determined that they WILL go to college).

I think lots of college-bound folks imagine a college degree to be something they have to get, not something they have to invest in. That is, for these folks, a college education is imagined to be a transactional experience, not a transformative experience. To wit, get the degree, move on and get a good job and make good bucks. Of course, it often doesn’t turn out the way, but that’s a durable modern version of the college dream.

Earlier I suggested that competence to succeed in college is not a given. “A college education for everyone” is a mad hatter’s slogan. Let’s just say it: the average person isn’t well-equipped intellectually to do well in the classical liberal arts milieu, or in any four-year college-level milieu. If “everybody” could do college, then college wouldn’t be what Rawlings or you or I like to think it should be.

Rawlings makes an indefensible assumption about the capability and willingness of the average student “…to take an active and risk-taking role…to make an investment in their future…to apply themselves to the daunting task of using their minds…” Of course there are students who can do it and will do it, lots of them. Certainly, there are lots of students who can’t and won’t. I’ve taught some of both. Neither group is going to disappear from the campus.

Rawlings says college is not a commodity. I say far too many students don’t really want to be students in the sense that Rawlings envisions—far too many students just want to be customers, and sure, they want something special, not a commoditized one-size-fits-all, but they aren’t prepared to do much of anything special to get it.

p.s. here's my tip of the hat to all the profs who bring some Platonic essences into their classrooms.

p.p.s.  The classical liberal arts:  grammar, rhetoric and logic (Trivium) and arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music (Quadrivium).

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

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