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Welcome to the elite

Darryl Campbell | Sunday, August 31, 2008

Congratulations to all the freshmen beginning their first year at Notre Dame, and welcome back everyone else. You probably haven’t given it much thought yet, but just by being here, most of you – 95 percent of you, by the Notre Dame Department of News and Information’s reckoning-have taken the first steps toward getting something the majority of Americans (75.5 percent of them, give or take one tenth of one percent) don’t have: a college degree. Let that sink in for a moment. Fewer than one in every four Americans over the age of 18 have a college degree, according to the Census Bureau’s 2006 American Community Survey.Of course, exactly what that degree does for you is a bit vaguer. The Census Bureau, naturally, has a statistical answer. It sets the value of a bachelor’s degree quite literally: about $2 million over the course of a lifetime, which, you might tell whoever pays your tuition, is not a bad return on investment. Plenty of articles and web sites describe what a bachelor’s degree gets you in economic terms as well, if a little more subtly (“a secure future that comes with a steady profession that can ride out any economic rollercoaster,” or “more prestigious employment and greater job satisfaction”). Others can only resort to the sort of empty, meaningless language of second-rate pitchmen or motivational speakers, saying that a degree “teaches you to solve more of life’s problems” or lets you “tap into your potential and challenges you to perform at your peak.”Explaining the worth of a degree in these terms isn’t particularly satisfying. Truthfully, I think it borders on insulting; surely all you future degree-holders didn’t decide to come here based on a dollar amount or a bit of marketing jargon. How else to summarize the college experience, then? Is it the sum of classes taken, papers written, languages learned and groups joined, or does that make it seem like mere skills-building and vocational training – everything that a liberal arts education claims not to be (and what does it mean if we don’t, for example, perfectly remember how to solve differential equations or the causes of the French Revolution)? Is it something more intangible and immeasurable, like promoting abstract and complex thought or Socratic self-reflection? Or is it just supposed to provoke a deep-seated sense of restlessness and world-weariness? There probably isn’t a good answer to this dilemma, and even if there was, it wouldn’t fit in a Viewpoint column (personally, I think it’s the third option, particularly for degree holders in the humanities). At the very least, however, it is worth asking what we’re doing here, and exactly what it means – if it means anything at all – to join the degree-holding minority of the population.Finally, there is the matter of everyone else. Some combination of ability, hard work, preparation, circumstances and luck got each of you here and will get the vast majority of you through to getting that diploma. And once you get it you’ll be a part of an exclusive club of degree holders – an elite, if you like. But I’d also be willing to bet that many of you go on to jobs where, for whatever reason, you probably won’t work with people outside of this elite, at least not as peers or equals. Amid all the beginning-of-the-year talk about the Notre Dame bubble, it’s easy to forget that it can go on for a lot longer than the four or so years that you’re here. You could probably go through life thinking that getting a degree, especially one from Notre Dame, also confers a monopoly on thoughtfulness, curiosity or intelligence. But if that’s all you’ve taken away from college, then you might wonder if, in fact, you have really learned anything.

Darryl Campbell is a second-year Ph.D. student in history. He can be contacted at [email protected] views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.