What We Have a Right to Expect from College

My goodness, my liberal arts rant generated a bit more controversy than I was expecting.  A few thoughts, in response to comments:

  • I didn’t mean to attack the liberal arts.  I love the liberal arts.  I just don’t think they should be taught to the exclusion of everything else.  If you want to teach Euclid, fine.  Euclid is gorgeous.  But please throw some more practical math in there, too.  (I personally had to weep my way through set theory and Aristotle’s logic.  Gargh.)  If you want to teach science as “natural history,” from a theological or Aristotelian point of view, that’s nice.  But throw in the basics of modern science too, please.  If you want your students to do a lot of writing, that’s wonderful!  But why don’t you add in a little bit of proofreading, editing, formatting, and computer skills while you’re at it?
  • I think it’s very important to remember that your job and your vocation are not necessarily the same thing.  You may have a vocation to be a scholar, or your vocation may partly involve a love for and study of the classics; but you may not be able to make a living that way.  Not only is it okay if it turns out that way, but it’s fine to plan for an unrelated career, and fit your studying in on the side.  In my opinion, because my alma mater really pushed the idea that our vocation was to be academics–almost to the exclusion of being anything else, like someone with a non-academic job, or a Christian–they encouraged students in pipe dreams of making their living in academia.
  • Some people objected that preparing students for a career is not the job of a liberal arts school.  A few people suggested that parents should be responsible for real-world skills, and that we shouldn’t expect the school to raise our kids for us.  I agree that no matter what resources the school offers, a lot of it is up to your personal effort, personality, hard work, and connections.  However, I don’t think that all parents are able to give their children preparation for the job market, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable of them to ask the school to do that, even if it is a liberal arts school.  (Especially a Catholic school!  Catholics are supposed to care about educating the whole person–mind, body, and soul–and preparing students to be integrated, well-rounded witnesses to the world.)  I also think it’s unrealistic to expect a kid fresh out of high school to really know what he wants to do with his career.  That’s why I intend to keep track of my children’s interests and talents and suggest career paths for them.  They can begin with something that seems like a good bet, through trade school or community college, and then continue on to liberal arts if they want.  That way, if they change their minds about what they want to make their life’s work, they will have much less debt than if they had gone straight into college; and their initial training will give them a way to pay the bills until they figure out what they really want to do.
  • I also just wanted to add that my post was not intended to be a screed against the student loan system.  I see a lot of anger out there about greedy lenders charging crippling interest rates, and graduates being crushed by debt.  But regardless of how the system is set up, I did agree to incur that debt.  I don’t have much sympathy for the Occupy Wall Street types who feel like they’re being persecuted because they owe lots of money but can’t find jobs with their puppetry degrees.  I’d just like to see colleges, students, and parents put a little more forethought into career planning.  Is a 17 year old really mature enough to understand what it means to incur that much debt, and to make a realistic career plan?  Not usually.
  • One last point–I’m not very knowledgeable about economics, but it seems like a college degree is worth a lot less than it used to be.  There are so many college graduates out there, and so few jobs.  My husband applied for a low-paying teaching job at a private Catholic school a few years ago, and he was competing with about 30 other applicants, several of whom had masters’ degrees, and one who was a PhD.  One more thing to consider before you pay for a college education!  Here’s a good article about the worth of a 4-year college degree in today’s economy.
  • So far I’ve heard from alumni of Thomas Aquinas College in CA, University of Dallas, and Thomas More College in NH.  I’d love to hear more stories!
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2 thoughts on “What We Have a Right to Expect from College

  1. Pingback: 7QT Good Friday–serious topics, serious sugar | This Felicitous Life

  2. I think the overall mistake we make as a culture is thinking that “just figure it out as you go along!” is a legitimate plan for life. It’s not.

    Don’t get me wrong – the American ingenuity and ability to do just that has been instrumental in our cultural history and our rise from colony to superpower, but I think we collectively look back with rose-colored glasses and think to ourselves that the way we had to do things is the way it ought to be.

    What does this have to do with what you wrote?

    I have heard over and over again “You just have to figure it out” in reference to important practical life skills, as if there is simply no other way. Of course everyone will develop their own system to pay the bills, file taxes, etc. but why should they start from scratch? Certain underlying principles and practical exercises can certainly be taught just to give a person a baseline level of knowledge rather than throw them to the wolves.

    My dad is a big fan of the liberal arts, and he says that the purpose of an education is the transmittal of the body of cultural knowledge from generation to generation; this is why there is (and there ought to be) such an emphasis on history, art, and the classics.(*) And obviously you don’t have time to teach everything a person ought to know, but practical skills should be a priority. I should not have to hold Athena’s Sunday Afternoon Free Tax Clinic (tag line: You get what you pay for! Complimentary wine included.) to walk people through a simple form 1040 and Schedule A. I don’t mind doing it, but I think basic taxes should be a part of a basic education and I feel bad by people that are crippled into inaction the minute they lay eyes on a 1098 from their mortgage company.

    That’s just an example, and I could go on, but I think the underlying issue is our cultural optimism and ingenuity (dare I say naievete?) getting in the way of a more balanced cost-benefit analysis when it comes to college and our education as a whole.

    (*) Personally, I take issue with some of the things deemed to be “classics” but that’s another rant. Suffice it to say, if my high school reading list was in any way representative of what other high schoolers read, researchers are wasting a LOT of money scratching their heads and wondering why teenagers are depressed.

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