The True Worth of a Higher Education

Of course we expect our graduates to have earning power. But the real power we expect them to exert is the power of their moral voice, the strength of their ethical backbone, the fortitude of their daily commitment to work for improvement of the human condition.
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I spent the weekend exhorting my seniors to become servant leaders, to commit their lives to action for social justice, to heed the call of Pope Francis to instigate historical processes, not merely occupying spaces but becoming real agents of change for the world.

We did not talk about how much money they might make.

Neither I nor any of the other speakers during Trinity's Cap & Gown Weekend (a traditional time of honor for our senior students) said one word to dissuade our students from marching forth into their chosen careers as teachers, nurses, counselors, psychologists, nonprofit executives, human resources specialists, school principals, writers, artists, advocates for the poor, servants to the marginalized citizens of our city, our local communities, and the larger global village.

Indeed, at our Cap and Gown Convocation on Saturday evening and all through the Cap and Gown Mass on Sunday, speaker after speaker reinforced the message that our mission and purpose in higher education at Trinity is the formation of leaders of conscience and conviction, the engagement of intellect and soul in the passionate pursuit of social justice for the community as the true worth of a higher education. Of course we expect our students to work, and so they do -- but the worth of their work and the worth of their education is measured in the lives they touch and change for the better, not the size of their bank accounts.

We get this wild and crazy idea from the Sisters of Notre Dame who founded Trinity. The SNDs are still all about working for social justice, as they remind us at every opportunity. Religious congregations have that way of reminding their schools that there is a much higher calling than mere money. Ask the Jesuit schools about that. Or ask the schools founded by the Ursulines, the Sisters of Mercy, the Holy Cross fathers, or the Benedictines, among many others.

In his homily on Sunday, Father Rich Colgan, a wonderful Paulist priest, quoted Dorothy Day: "We must talk about poverty, because people insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it." A Trinity education, he reminded students, is about calling out poverty, about reaching out beyond our own wants and needs to those who have less, who need so much more.

Many of our students at Trinity have known great poverty; they have triumphed in their academic work through sheer self-determination and the certain knowledge that their educational achievement will lift their families to new levels of economic security. They do not seek personal enrichment for its own sake, but rather, economic security to make it possible for their children to surpass them in school and in life. And they want to be of service to others; a distinctive characteristic of Trinity students is their deep desire to help others, to find the kind of work that will be healing, transformative and a source of hope in communities of great need.

The current reductionist effort to homogenize all of the values of higher education into a gray mass of data, extruding a few factoids like average starting salaries by major program, is an insult to the entire idea of higher learning and a betrayal of the moral purpose that so many religiously affiliated colleges and universities share in common.

Catholic colleges and universities, as a particularly large and distinctive group of value-centered schools under the big tent of higher education, should be especially vocal advocates for defining the worth of our mission by the service that our graduates extend to communities and people in need throughout the world, rather than by the rather crude and self-serving yardstick of salaries or other inwardly-focused data sets.

While we were busy cheering Trinity's seniors on to their higher calling this weekend, on another stage far to the north some very wealthy, influential and smart people gathered on the small island of Nantucket to think big thoughts. I am sure that the people who devoted a weekend to The Nantucket Project's dialogues are people of great goodwill who want to find solutions to the most intractable problems of modern life. I was heartened to see that Larry Summers is aware of the huge gap between rich and poor children:

However, it seemed no small irony to think of Larry Summers on a stage in Nantucket opining about the poor. Other people who took to that same stage apparently did the same -- I only know what I read on Twitter. Finding ways to close the gap between rich and poor children educationally was apparently a big topic of discussion, and such and important topic for influential people to consider.

I'm delighted that so many people of wealth and influence care about improving education and opportunities in our nation -- I just wish they could have been with our Trinity students over the weekend to see, hear and experience dialogue with the very real people who are often deeply affected by the decisions that emanate from places of wealth and influence.

Too often, gatherings like The Nantucket Project reinforce the privileged few who make important decisions, including funding decisions, without ever hearing from those most affected by their ideas. Sometimes, those ideas wind up being unhelpful, or even harmful when ideas then get translated into public policy and laws that dictate the terms of the work and lives of other people. This is how education reform has become so problematic.

Decisions about education, in particular, cannot be made on islands. Indeed, discussions about education should not occur in isolation from those who experience education every day -- students, teachers, faculty, principals, presidents. Yet, too often, we are left out of the most important conversations, barred from being at the tables where our lives, our work, our futures are discussed, dissected, divided up and bartered away by people of far greater wealth and influence than our own. We keep seeing disappointing results in K-12 school reform that many who work in education predicted, but absent a place at the table, they were not heard.

In a similar vein, the national conversation about higher education that's been unfolding in the last few months is proceeding with a harshly sterile tone often divorced from real experience. Critics call for a system rating and ranking colleges and universities that seems clinically detached from the real worth of our work in the formation of the hearts and minds and souls of students whose life's work will be about far more than taking home a paycheck.

Of course we expect our graduates to have earning power. But the real power we expect them to exert is the power of their moral voice, the strength of their ethical backbone, the fortitude of their daily commitment to work for improvement of the human condition.

No rating or ranking system will ever capture the sheer joy, hope and sense of triumph that my seniors displayed this weekend as they paraded in their long-sought caps and gowns. Their children, younger siblings and young friends looked on with awe, and we know that those children will have even better chances for high academic achievements because their mothers and aunts, fathers and uncles have persisted against high odds to reach senior year.

Commencement is still months away for Trinity seniors, but the dream of collegiate achievement has already changed their lives for the better. They will pay it forward in the lives they will touch and change for the better in the careers they are pursuing largely in service professions, nonprofits and civic leadership. Our mission and vision is to ensure that such dynamic achievements will continue through the succeeding generations. The worth of this brand of higher education is not measurable in money, but in the incalculable worth of human lives changed for the better.

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