The Real Value of a College Education

Yesterday, it happened. A student hit me with the question that many educators dread, "When are we ever going to use this in life?"
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Yesterday, it happened. A student hit me with the question that many educators dread, "When are we ever going to use this in life?"

I love this question. I don't dread it at all. I eat it up.

I had just shown my freshman composition class part two of the incredible "Everything is a Remix" video series by filmmaker Kirby Ferguson. The premise of the series is, as the title suggests, that everything comes from something else. The portion we watched yesterday shows side by side shots from the Star Wars films and the source material that George Lucas culled in order to create his movies. I'm not sure if Ferguson is aware of the textbook I use for this class, somewhat cheesily called Remix, but his video series provides the perfect multimedia companion to it.

But, based on the fact that my students read essays in Remix about celebrity culture, suburban living, video games, and Facebook, it's always just a matter of time before they question how any of this is relevant for their future. Oh, they enjoy the conversations we have in class, but I can always sense -- especially among the sharper students -- a growing worry that I'm wasting their time.

So, at some point in the semester (we're just about a week away from spring break at this point), someone will ask the inevitable question. She may have well lit a long cartoon fuse leading to a stack of TNT. I exploded.

"Why are you in college?" I asked.

"So I can get a job after," she answered.

"What's your major?"

"Social work."

"You want to be a social worker?"

"No," she said. "I'm switching to pre-med."

"You want to be a doctor."

"I don't know."

Got her. "Okay," I smirked, "assuming you decide you don't want to be a doctor, let's say you decide you want to go into banking or teaching or some other thing. Do you think you'll be able to get a job?"

"I guess. If I have a degree."

"So, even though your degree doesn't really apply to what you want to do, you still think it will get you a job?"

"I guess."

"I think you're right," I told her. "That is because the value of your college education isn't career training. No one is going to ask you what courses you took. That doesn't show up on your resume."

Blank stares from the class, so I continue, sounding more and more like a fiery Southern Baptist preacher but with a decidedly more liberal message.

"The value of a liberal arts college education -- to you, to employers -- is that you've spent four years in a place where you were forced to consider new ideas, to meet new people, to ask new questions, and to learn to think, to socialize, to imagine. If you graduate, you will get a degree, but if you are not a very different person from who you are today, then college failed."

I think they were shocked to hear me talking like this. But, I think they liked it a little too, to have someone put their entire experience in perspective.

I told them that by the time I graduated from my own Christian liberal arts college I was a changed person, a better person than the one who entered four years prior.

"What kind of person were you before college?" a particularly inquisitive student asked.

"A knucklehead," I replied.

I really believe this stuff. I know that this isn't a universal view about the value of college, but it's the reason I teach. I went on to explain the practical side of what we were doing as well. Because I teach writing, I can insist that the skills they pick up in my class will serve them well throughout the rest of their college careers as well as whatever jobs they end up in after. I made it clear -- as I have many times already throughout the semester -- that the concept of remix (studying the work of others, combining it with their own thoughts, and outputting a new creation) is how all good writing works. But all of that, I insisted, is secondary to the importance of changing and growing as a person in college.

This group of students caught me at a particularly pertinent time to launch into this lecture about the value of college; I just finished one of the better novels I've read in a long time, Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot. If you're unfamiliar with the novel, it's best summarized by saying it's about a love triangle between three college students at Brown University. Madeleine is an English major who loves Romantic literature, Mitchell is a religious studies major who is in love with Madeleine but is hopelessly one of those guys that girls always consider "just friends." Leonard is Madeleine's boyfriend. He's a biology major and he suffers from manic-depression.

The Marriage Plot shows college as a time when students do precisely what I insisted college students do. In a review of the novel for Books and Culture, my friend and sometime editor Naomi Schaefer Riley writes this of college, "It was time that was supposed to be (at least in part) spent in pure intellectual pursuits, time to read the books that you probably wouldn't get to when you had a family to support. Time to think about big ideas and talk about them with friends in the middle of the night. And even, clichéd though it may sound, time to search for meaning in life."

Riley, who has written extensively about contemporary higher education, thinks this description refers to a distant past, "However college students are spending their time these days, they are not, generally speaking, engaged in this search."

Though Riley's probably right in the global sense -- she has, after all, been researching this stuff for over a decade now -- this belief about what college is supposed to be remains my inspiration to teach. It's what makes me want to push my students, stretch their minds, and even -- sometimes -- make them uncomfortable.

I believe in a college education for the same reason anybody believes in anything -- because it has worked for me. To be certain there is a lot that is wrong with higher education, but I take this as a challenge. To try to be something that is right about it.

I imagine that my inquisitor thought about what I said for a minute or two yesterday, and then I dismissed her, and then she went to lunch, and didn't think about it again. Which leads me to my favorite thing about this process of transformation that happens in college: it is magic. It's not quantifiable, there's hardly ever a specific moment when everything changes, it happens slowly over time. But if my colleagues and I do our work well -- the magic will happen.

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