Many schools and college access programs consistently confuse the ideals of “college” with the physical realities of college. They make going to school a way to prepare for arriving at a physical location called a college, but not for dealing with the incorporeal (dare I say spiritual?) aspects of the place. As a result, even programs that support ambitious and high-achieving students from non-privileged backgrounds mistakenly emphasize the wrong way to go about preparing students for success in the post-high school world of higher education.
To be educationally sound and serve our students well, we must think of “college” as a concept, not just as a physical place. “College” considered this way embodies all the habits of mind and development of talents we hope all our students will achieve. Colleges as institutions expect students to enter with a strong grasp of writing, reading, mathematics, and so on; we know the drill. The idea of “college” extends, or should extend, deeply into the mind and widely out into the world surrounding us.
Very often schools and programs sacrifice cultivating these values in order to aim students at the brick and mortar that make up a campus. Emphasizing rule following and lessons drained of context or imagination, drilling students in “college knowledge” like how to fill out applications instead of reading and discussing literature or science or history, well-meaning organizations mistake the trappings of college-ness for its essence. They make the drive to get into a physical college more important than understanding the value and pleasure of “college.”
I have worked with enough non-privileged students to know that even those who are first in their classes may not have the skills to write clearly or read with understanding. They have limited vocabularies, poor interpretive powers, and rudimentary mathematical skills. Their schools have emphasized ACT prep over genuine content, or have spent time taking their students to see the greenswards of competitive colleges, rather than performing the harder task of teaching their students how to be “college” level students.
I also know that many of those students, in private tutoring sessions or in casual discussions, are bright, curious, and interested in many things. They are entirely capable but have been drained of the spirit of education. I’ve met too late students who, if they had been nurtured properly from freshman year might have made wonderful students at any college or university.
Just this evening I tutored a young sophomore who had been assigned to write a five paragraph “rhetorical essay” about an article he had read. The instructions for the assignment were eight pages long, longer than the article itself. It broke each step down into minute detail and was as interesting as an IRS instruction manual. There was no room to discuss the ideas in the article itself; he just had to identify various rhetorical devices and write his essay. No wonder he told me he didn’t like English.
To put it in another context, it’s like having students learn the architecture of a church without giving them an understanding of the spirituality that inspired its creation. When we consider the great medieval and Gothic cathedrals, like Chartres or Canterbury, we have to wonder at the power of spirit that drove thousands of people to contribute to building them. In an era when most people were miserably poor, constantly on the verge of starving, and likely to die by the time they were in their mid-30s, why would anyone have spent any energy building a massive structure that served no corporeal purpose?
Without the sense of higher purpose that medieval peasants brought to the construction of these buildings, there would have been no reason to sacrifice for them. They contributed their talents, skills, and labor to build soaring monuments to the spirit. Their day-to-day progress was not to “build a church” but to “build a house for God.” In a sense, they were not building a physical thing at all but an expression of faith made visible.
Although I’m neither a historian nor a theologian, I can imagine that the people who lived in these eras were not first taught how to build a church and then how to love and fear God. Instead, they were steeped in ideals and spirituality that propelled them to build a massive, complex, and beautiful building that took decades to complete. But they needed to have the inner motivation before they could fathom and accept the literal blood, sweat, and tears that construction would require.
I realize this may be a grandiose way to talk about college, but I believe it’s appropriate. When we focus on the physicality of a campus or embrace “strategies” and shortcuts for getting into college, aren’t we asking students to prize a glittering, shallow surface rather than a deeper connection to life and learning? We don’t ask our students to be ministers or monks or spiritual beings much any more (ironically enough, the original task of many of our most famous and “elite” colleges and universities), but are we not abandoning the richness that can come from real education when we simply skim the surface of what “college” is about?
We don’t like to admit it (in fact it rarely comes up), but education has a deeply spiritual element to it. A good education feeds the soul and inspires us, deepens us, and leads us to achieve good, sometimes great, things. Whether liberal arts or professionally oriented, good education goes deeply into us. Schooling without that essence is just empty ritual; no one is going to build a cathedral for that. No one is going to go to college and achieve unless he or she feels connected to the spirit of the place, not just to the buildings. You can go through the motions of college just as you can go through the motions of a church service, but unless you feel there’s some higher power involved in what you’re doing, you’re not doing much.