The New York Times tells the story of Benjamin Goering. Goering is 22. Until recently he studied computer science and philosophy at the University of Kansas. He felt “frustrated in crowded lecture halls where the professors did not even know his name.” So Goering dropped out of college and went to San Francisco, where he got a job as a software engineer.
I applaud Goering for making a risky decision. College was not for him. This does not mean he wasn’t smart or couldn’t cut it. He clearly has talent and it was being wasted in courses he was not interested in that were costing him and his family many tens of thousands of dollars every year. In leaving, Goering made the right decision for him. Indeed, many more college students should make the same decision he did. There are huge numbers of talented people who are simply not intellectuals and don’t enjoy or get much out of college. This is not destiny. A great or good teacher might perk them up. But largely it is a waste of their time and money for them to struggle through (or sleep through) classes that bore them. If anything, the forced march through Shakespeare and Plato make these students less engaged, cynical, and self-centered as they turn from common sense to the internal pursuit of self interest in partying and life in private.
The story should raise the big question that everyone tiptoes around in this current debate about college: Who should go to college?
The obvious answer is those who want to and those who care about ideas. Those who see that in thinking and reading and talking about justice, democracy, the scientific method, and perspective, we are talking about what it means to live in a large, democratic, bureaucratic country at a time of transition from an industrial to a information-age economy. College, in other words, is for those people who want to think about their world. It is for people who are willing and eager to turn to the great thinkers who came before them and, also, the innovative scientists and artists who have revealed hidden secrets about the natural and the human worlds. It is, in other words, for intellectuals. And this of course raises the “E” question: the question of elitism.
It is folly to think that everyone is or should be interested in such an endeavor. In no society in history have intellectuals been anything but a small minority of the population. This is not a question of privilege. There is no reason to think that those who love ideas are better or more qualified than those who work the earth, build machines, or engineer websites. It may very well be otherwise.
Hannah Arendt was clear that intellectuals had no privileged position in politics. On the contrary, she worried that the rise of intellectuals in politics was specifically dangerous. Intellectuals, insofar as they could get lost in and captivated by ideas, are prone to lose sight of reality in the pursuit of grand schemes. And intellectuals, captivated by the power of reason, are susceptible to rationalizations that excuse wrongs like torture or suicide bombing as means necessary for greater goods. The increasing dominance of intellectuals in politics, Arendt argued, is one of the great dangers facing modern society. She thus welcomed the grand tradition of the American yeoman farmer and affirmed that there is no need to go to college to be an engaged citizen or a profound thinker. The last of our Presidents who did not attend college was Abraham Lincoln. He did just fine. It is simply ridiculous to argue that college is a necessary credential for statesmanship.
While intellectuals have no special claim to leadership or prominence, they are nevertheless important. Intellectuals—those who think— are those people in society who stand apart from the mainstream pressures of economy and influence and outside the political movements of advocacy and propaganda. In the Arendtian tradition, intellectuals are or can be conscious pariahs, those who look at their societies from the outside and thus gain a perspective from distance that allows them to understand and comprehend the society in ways that people deeply embedded within it cannot. Those who stand apart from society and think are important, first because they preserve and deepen the stories and tales we as a society tell about ourselves. In writing poetry, making art, building monuments, writing books, and giving speeches, intellectuals help lend meaning and gravity to the common sense we have of ourselves as a people.
One problem we have in the current debate is that College has morphed into an institution designed to do many (too many) things. On the one hand, college has historically been the place for the education of and formation of intellectuals. But for many decades if not many centuries, that focus has shifted. Today College is still a place for the life of the mind. But it is also a ticket into the middle or upper-middles classes and it is equally a job-training and job-certification program. Of course, it is also a consumer good that brands young people with a certain mystique and identity. For many localities colleges are, themselves, job creation machines, bringing with them all sorts of new businesses and throwing off patents and graduating students that reinvigorate local communities. The university is now a multiversity, to invoke Clark Kerr’s famous term. When we talk about college today, the debate is complicated by these multiple roles.
It is difficult to raise such issues today because they smack of elitism. Since college-educated people think they are superior to those without a fancy diploma, their egalitarianism then insists that everyone should have the same experience. We are not supposed to entertain the idea that some people may not want to go to college. Instead, we are told that if they had a better education, if they knew better, if they just were taught to understand, they would all want to sit in classrooms and read great books or do exciting experiments.
We are stuck today with what Hannah Arendt called, in a related context, the “democratic mentality of an egalitarian society that tends to deny the obvious inability and conspicuous lack of interest of large parts of the population in political matters as such.” In politics, Arendt argued that what was needed were public spaces from which a self-chose “élite could be selected, or rather, where it could select itself.” Similarly, in education today, colleges should be the spaces where those who want to select themselves as an educated élite might lose themselves in books and experiments and amongst paintings and symphonies. There is simply no reason to assume that most people in society need to or should be interested in such an endeavor.
One reason the question of elitism is so present in debates about college is the disgusting and degenerate state of American public high schools. If high schools provided a serious and meaningful civic education, if they taught not simply reading and writing and arithmetic, but history and art—and taught these well—we would not need to send students to remedial education in college where they could be taught these subjects a second time. While many academics wring their hands about making college available to all, they might do much better if they focused on high schools and grammar schools around the country. If we were to redistribute the billions of dollars we spend on remedial college education to serious reform efforts in high schools, that money would be very well spent.
To raise the question of elitism means neither that college should be open only to the rich and connected (on the contrary, it should be open to all who want it), nor that the educated elite is to be segregated from society and kept apart in an ivory tower. When one reads Shakespeare, studies DNA, or dances with Bill T. Jones, one is not simply learning for learning's sake. Few understood this better than John Finley, Greek Professor at Harvard, who wrote General Education in a Free Society in 1945. Finley had this to say about the purposes of a college education:
The heart of the problem of a general education is the continuance of the liberal and humane tradition. Neither the mere acquisition of information nor the development of special skills and talents can give the broad basis of understanding which is essential if our civilization is to be preserved…. Unless the educational process includes at each level of maturity some continuing contact with those fields in which value judgments are of prime importance, it must fall short of the ideal.
What college should offer—as should all education at every level except for the most specialized graduate schools—is the experience of thinking and coming to engage with the world in which one lives. College is, at its best, an eye opening experience, an opportunity for young people to learn the foundational texts and also be exposed to new cultures, new ideas, and new ways of thinking. The ideas of justice, truth, and beauty one learns are not valuable in themselves; they are meaningful only insofar as they impact and inform our daily lives. To read Plato’s Republic is to ask: what are the value of the ideas of good and the just? It is also to meditate on the role of music and art in society. And at the same time, it is to familiarize oneself with characters like Socrates and Plato who, in the world we share, epitomize the qualities of morality, heroism, and the pursuit of the truth wherever it might lead. This can also be done in high schools. And it should be.
It is simply wrong to think such inquiries are unworldly or overly intellectual. Good teachers teach great texts not simply because the books are old, but because they are meaningful. And young students return to these books generation after generation because they find in them stories, examples, and ideas that inspire them to live their lives better and more fully.
As Leon Botstein, President of Bard College where the Hannah Arendt Center is located, writes in his book Jefferson’s Children,
No matter how rigorous the curriculum, no matter how stringent the requirements, if what goes on in the classroom does not leave its mark in the way young adults voluntarily act in private and in public while they are in college, much less in the years after, then the college is not doing what it is supposed to do.
The basic question being asked today is: Is college worthwhile? It is a good question. Too many colleges have lost their way. They no longer even understand what they are here to offer. Faculty frequently put research above teaching. Administration is the fastest growing segment of university education, which is evidence if anything is that universities simply do not know what their mission is anymore. It is no wonder, then, that many of our brightest young people will begin to shy away from the thoughtless expectation that one must attend college.
All around us, people are opting out of college. The mania for online education is at least in part fueled by the hunger for knowledge from students and others who do not want or need to attend college. The Times highlights Uncollege and other organizations that advocate “hacking” your education. Recall that Lincoln was better schooled in the classics of poetry and politics than most every college educated President who followed him. At a time when many colleges are so confused and trying to do so many things, they often do none well. It may be the case today that we need to evolve new networks and new organizations where intellectualism can flourish. And it may be small liberal arts colleges that are more flexible and more able to make that transition than large, bureaucratic research institutions.
The real question this debate needs to raise, but avoids, is: Who should get a college education? The answer, “not everyone,” is one few want to hear. And yet it might be the beginning of a real conversation about what a college education is for and why we are today so often failing to provide it to our students.
Student debt is suddenly spurring the once unthinkable debate: Is college necessary? Of course the answer is no. But who needs it and who should pay for it are complicated questions.
Arendt herself had an ambivalent relationship to academic culture. She never held a tenure-track job in the academy and she remained suspicious of intellectuals and academics. She never forgot how easily professors in Germany embraced the rationality of the Nazi program or the conformity with which Marxist and leftist intellectuals excused Stalinism. In the U.S., Arendt was disappointed with the "cliques and factions" as well as the overwhelming "gentility" of academics, that dulled their insights. It was for that reason that she generally shunned the company of academics, with of course notable exceptions. A free thinker—she valued thinking for oneself above all—she was part of and apart from the university world.
We plan to keep the discussion about college and debt going on the Arendt Center blog. Here are a few thoughts to get the debate going.
First, college is not magic. It will neither make you smart nor make you rich. Some of our best writers and thinkers somehow avoided writing five-page papers on the meaning of Sophocles. (That of course does not mean that they didn't read Sophocles, even in the Ancient Greek.) And many of the most successful Americans never graduated or attended college. On the other hand, many college grads and Ph.D.'s are surviving on food stamps today. Some who attend the University of Phoenix will benefit greatly from it. Many who attend Harvard squander their money and time. Especially today, college is as much a safe path for risk-averse youth as it is a haven for the life of the mind or a tasseled path to the upper classes.
Second, College can be a transformative experience. As I prepare to say goodbye to another cohort of graduates at Bard, I am reminded again how amazing these students are and how much I learn from them every year. I wrote recently about one student who wrote a simply stunning meditation on education. Today I will be meeting with two students about their senior projects. One is a profound, often personal, and yet also deeply mature exploration of loneliness in David Foster Wallace, Hannah Arendt, and Martin Heidegger. The other is a genealogy of whistleblowing from T.E. Lawrence to Bradley Manning, arguing that the rise of whistleblowing in the 20th century is both a symptom of and a contributor to the lost facts in public life. Both are testaments to the fact that college can inspire young adults to wrestle meaningfully and intelligently with the world they must confront.
Third, Most students do not attend college because they want to. Of course some do and I have enormous respect for those who embrace the life of the mind that college can nurture. I also respect those who decide that college is not for them. But the simple fact is that too many college students are here thoughtlessly, going through the motions because they are on a track. College has become a stepping stone to a good job which is a stand in for a good life. Nothing wrong with that, but is it really worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and four years of your time simply to get a credential? College students are young and full of energy. Too often they spend four of their most energetic years studying things they don't care about while they sleep late, drink a lot, and generally have a good time. This cannot be the best use of most young people's time.
Fourth, it is not at all clear that college is a good investment. There is no limit of students who tell me that taking out debt for an education is always a good investment. This is usually around the time they want to apply to law school or graduate school. And I can only repeat to them so many times that they are simply wrong. Finally, the press is catching up to this fact, and we are treated to a daily drumbeat of stories about the dangers of student debt. College debt in the U.S. now exceeds $1 Trillion, more than credit card debt (although far smaller than mortgage debt). The problem is widespread, as 94% percent of those who earn a bachelor’s degree take on debt to pay for higher education — up from 45 percent in 1993. And the problem is deep: The average debt in 2011 was $23,300. For 10% of college graduates, their debt is crippling, as they owe more than $54,000. Three percent owe more than $100,000.
The most egregious debt traps are still the for-profit colleges, which serve the working classes who cannot afford more expensive non-profit colleges. These schools prey on the perception, partly true, that career advancement requires a college degree. But now even public universities and private elite colleges are increasingly graduating students with high debt loads. And then there are law schools and culinary schools, which increasingly graduate indebted and trained professionals into a world in which does not need them.
he result is as sad as it is predictable. Nearly 1 in 9 young graduate borrowers who started repayment in 2009 defaulted within two years. This is about double the rate in 2005. The numbers vary: 15% of recent graduates from for-profit schools are in default. Also 7.2% of public university graduations and 4.6% of private university graduates are defaulting. Each of these groups requires a separate analysis and discussion. And yet overall, we are burdening way too many young people with debts that will plague them their entire lives.
Fifth, to defend college education as a good investment is not simply questionable economically. It also is to devalue the idea of education for its own sake and insist that college is an economic rather than an intellectual experience. One unintended consequence of the expansion of college to a wider audience of strivers is that a college education is decidedly an economic and bourgeois experience, less and less an intellectual adventure. Was college ever Arcadia? Surely not. For much of American history college has been a benefit reserved for the upper classes. And yet to turn education into a commodity, to make it part of the life process of making a living, does further delimit the available spaces for the life of the mind in our society.
Sixth, college is not necessary to make us either moral or enlightened citizens. College education does not make us better people. There are plenty of amazing people in the world who have had not studied Aristotle or learned genetics in college. The United States was built on the tradition of the yeoman farmer, that partly mythical but also real person who worked long days, saved, and treated people honorably.
Morality, as Hannah Arendt never tired of pointing out, is not gained by education. Or as Kant once pointed out to a certain Professor Sulzer in a footnote to his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, morality can only be taught by example, not through study. Arendt agreed. She saw that many of those who acted most honorably during WWII were not the intellectuals, but common people who simply understood that killing neighbors or shooting Jews was inhuman. What is more, it was often the intellectuals who provided themselves and others with the complex and quasi-scientific rationalizations for genocide. To think rationally, and even to use a current buzzword, to think critically, is no barrier to doing evil. Critical thinking—the art of making distinctions—is no guarantee of goodness.
Seventh, college cannot and should not replace a failed primary and high school system. Our primary schools are a disgrace and then we spend a fortune on remedial education in community colleges and even in four-year colleges, trying to educate people who have been failed by their public schools. We would do much better to take a large part of the billions and billions of public dollars we spend on higher education and put them towards a radical restoration of our public grammar and high schools. If we actually taught people in grammar schools and pushed them to excel in high schools, they would graduate prepared to hold meaningful jobs and also to be thoughtful citizens. Maybe then a college education could then be both less necessary and more valuable.
Bard College, which houses the Hannah Arendt Center, has been engaged for years in creating public high schools that are also early colleges. The premise is that high school students are ready for college level work, and there is nothing to prevent them from doing that. These Bard High School Early Colleges are public high schools staffed by professors with Ph.D's who teach the same courses we teach at Bard College. In four years, students must complete an entire four-year high school curriculum and a two-year college curriculum. They then receive a Bard Associates Degree at graduation, in addition to their high school diploma. This Associates degree —which is free— can either reduce the cost of graduation from a four-year college or replace it altogether.
Early colleges are not the single answer for our crisis of education. But they do point in one direction. Money spent on really reforming high schools and even primary schools will do so much more to educate a broad, racially diverse, and economically underprivileged cohort of young people than any effort to reform or subsidize colleges and universities. The primary beneficiaries of the directing public money to colleges rather than high schools are Professors and administrators. I benefit from such subsidies and appreciate them. But that does mean I think them right or sensible.
We would be much better off if we redirected our resources and attention to primary and secondary education, which are failing miserably, and stopped obsessing so about college. Most college graduates, wherever they go, will learn something from their four or more years of classes. But the mantra that one only becomes a full human being by going to college is not only false. It also is dangerous.