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The value of college

Darryl Campbell | Monday, April 14, 2008

We should all feel lucky to be in college. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, just under 30 percent of the adult American population holds a bachelor’s degree or more. Yet that elite 30 percent earns, on average, at least twice as much as those with a high school diploma, and those with advanced degrees, four times as much. The Institute for Higher Education Policy, meanwhile, reported that college graduates enjoy higher levels of saving, increased personal and professional mobility, improved quality of life for their offspring, better consumer decision making and more leisure time. Economically speaking, a college degree is a good thing.

But there is something odd about reducing a bachelor’s degree to mere numbers. Are such statistics supposed to reassure those studying toward degrees that they (or their parents) made the right choice or are they supposed to be an incentive for those who are thinking of not going to college at all? And what does it say that these institutions are describing the whole of college experience in terms of future salaries? After all, according to these two institutions, the university is nothing more than a means to a vocational end – a monetary leg up and nothing else. And because the university apparently has to justify itself in terms of the market, it suggests that a bachelor’s degree has no intrinsic worth outside of its economic value.

Maybe it doesn’t. It’s hard to break the liberal arts curriculum down into something as punchy as a cost/benefit analysis. Of course, the liberal arts are supposed to impart critical thinking skills, general knowledge, aesthetic sensibilities and the like, to create a “complete” person. All of these things sound good but are hard to measure or define. More importantly, all of these things are becoming less and less valuable in the real world, or at least in the working world, which for the most part values compliance, punctuality and efficiency as much as (if not over) creativity and critical thought. If you need some critical thinking, you can turn to the glut of analysts and commentators, who can reduce even the most complicated ideas or events into a sound byte or, even better, a smug one-liner. And where are you going to use your general knowledge except at, say, trivia night at your local bar?

In one of J.D. Salinger’s short stories, a character complains, “You never even hear any hints dropped on a campus that wisdom is supposed to be the goal of knowledge. You hardly ever even hear the word ‘wisdom’ mentioned!” And in a sense, that’s true. No matter what goes on the curriculum, universities are, for the most part, designed to impart knowledge. Even the most advanced classes, whether in the sciences or the humanities, teach you mostly knowledge: facts, theories, arguments and so on. Wisdom, on the other hand, is purely internal. Maybe it results from broadening your intellectual capacity through intense study of everything from history to physics to music or maybe you can get it just from reading Plato, Augustine or Nietzsche. What the liberal arts curriculum ultimately does, I think, is place you in contact with so many products of the human experience that you are as likely as not to find some small thing that makes you think. But most importantly, wisdom is something that can’t really be taught. It’s something wholly personal and that makes it something immeasurable, unalienable from the individual; something that can’t, in short, be measured in dollars, leisure time or quite possibly by any rubric at all.

And that is both the achievement and the drawback of a liberal arts education. It can make you start along the path to wisdom, but it can’t explain how, or why, or even guarantee that it will happen. After college you’ll probably never be in such an intellectually rich environment again and you may very well be working in a place where knowledge, wisdom and much else of what you learn in college is secondary to pure productivity. Any further personal growth is entirely up to you.

So in the end, because we are at a university where the liberal arts are still an integral part of the curriculum, we are indeed lucky – and maybe not just for our future paychecks.

Darryl Campbell is a first-year graduate student in history. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.