The Uncounted Pleasures of College

Crabby speaks out against cost-benefit analysis…

Last week Crabby attended a presentation entitled “Is College Worth It?” Of course Crabby already believed the answer was “yes,” but given the economy and the lower economic rungs most of his students now stand on, it usually pays to hear this idea reinforced.

The presenter made all the usual points about how having a college degree increases one’s earnings over a lifetime, lengthens one’s lifespan, contributes to greater health conditions, and so on. The list of benefits was long and impressive, but not once did he say anything about the pleasure or the excitement of attending college or the virtue of being educated.

Crabby isn’t talking about the social life and the by now cliched “climbing wall” that every college now seems to have. He’s talking about the real, true, and life-changing pleasures of learning new things, of having one’s ideas and assumptions challenged, and of being part of a community where the life of the mind is (in theory, at least) is paramount. In fact, he’s talking about the most basic reason to go to college: to learn something. As Aristotle said, “The ultimate value of life depends upon awareness and the power of contemplation rather than upon mere survival.”

The most depressing thing about the purely economic rationale for attending college is that it makes college simply a training area where young men and women are prepared for working lives. It’s assumed college will simply make them better workers, not better people or better citizens; no matter what they learn, it’s just to get them to their jobs, not really to educate them. The value of college attendance is, in the economic view, purely extrinsic, having little to offer the individual beyond more income and more “prizes” sometime in the future.

Crabby will not argue with the idea that young people should be employable when they leave college. But they should also have a taste of how pleasurable it is to engage in a spirited discussion about a book or an idea or a theory; of how exciting it is to learn that there are alternative theories of economic life or of historical eras and personages. They should be able to relish the idea that they have four years to feel the electrical charge that comes from intellectual sparring with professors and peers. It’s the last time most of us are able to do that without the pressures of earning a living, and we should take advantage of that.

Aside from the pure, intrinsic excitement of good learning there are two primary benefits for the individual and society in being educated: citizenship and enculturation. A good citizen should be able to parse politicians’ statements, for example (the 2012 election being just over), and decide what is true and what is false. The citizen should be able to take an active role in civic life, which can only be successfully and positively accomplished through being well educated.

The idea of “enculturation” doesn’t refer to having everyone indoctrinated into any one way of thinking but to the idea that everyone should be able to join the conversation in a democratic society. Whatever one’s background, a college education should enable that person to connect to others’ ideas and positions, to measure his own against them, and come up with new and possibly radically different thoughts. The continual dialectic of ideas keeps the demos moving.

In totalitarian societies, the individual’s highest duty is to serve the state, so being educated really doesn’t matter. Without proper education, the individual can be easily manipulated and made more compliant. So it’s particularly troubling to think that students from well-resourced communities and upper-class families can look forward to the idea of discussing ideas (leaving aside for now the problem of rampant careerism) while low income and first generation college students hear mostly about their future incomes and how being a well-educated worker should be their primary reason to attend college. (In this case “well educated” means able to understand instructions and the changing job market, not having read well or deeply.)

Crabby believes that low-income and first generation college students need to feel the intrinsic pleasure of education before they can understand whatever extrinsic rewards they might receive in the future. Without internalizing that pleasure, they will never be able to be truly educated, merely highly polished. And there is good reason to believe that learning really is an intrinsic pleasure–watch young children smile delightedly when they learn their alphabet. It’s only when school becomes a place for test prep and worksheets that the idea of pleasure and the almost automatic progression that comes with that are scrubbed out of them. They become compliant at best, truant and angry at worst.

In a recent profile of Diane Ravitch in the New Yorker (11/19/12), Joel Klein, former chancellor of the New York City school system, is quoted as saying that

unless schools help students from ‘challenged’ backgrounds, those students have little chance of surviving in a high-tech economy. ‘It’s a question of human dignity,’ he said. ‘If you can’t get a job, you don’t have dignity.’

Crabby would argue that Mr. Klein has it just backwards: If you don’t have dignity–the dignity of having been treated like a thinking human being instead of an interchangeable cog that simply needs continual testing and worksheets to be graduated from high school–then you won’t be able to work with any originality, energy, or pleasure. You will not feel in control of your future or yourself because you will have been taught only to be a compliant doer, not a genuine thinker. (When people talk about students’ not being “college ready” they usually mean in terms of subject matter; Crabby thinks they should really be talking about how they have never been taught how to work with an idea.)

This situation has real class implications that do not bode well for the future. It’s hard not to think of Fritz Lang‘s incredible silent movie “Metropolis,” which graphically shows the pleasure-driven elite living above ground enjoying the fruits of the faceless laborers living underground servicing the great machines that propel the world above. Students from all levels of society must at some point experience the joys of thinking, because that leads them to greater virtues and releases them from their limits. Otherwise, there will be a permanent rift between the boldly educated and the merely “trained.”

The economic argument for college is all well and good: it’s measurable, which makes most people happy. But the intangibles are much stronger and more important in Crabby’s view, even if they can’t be put into a graph or table. As Einstein said, “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” What we really need as a society is thinkers and questioners, not simply compliant workers. If college does not help create those thinkers, then Crabby questions its purpose; if our schools do not unlock their ability to think and enjoy the pleasures of thinking, they we are in a lot more trouble than we know.

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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One Response to The Uncounted Pleasures of College

  1. David Lane says:

    This is an excellent article. I have always argued that the value of college has little to do with how much oney one can earn. (I’m a private school teacher, and Ill nver get rich that way.) I( have continued taking class just about all my life just because of the joy of being in that sort of environment.

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