A pleasant way to fill the leisure time between one’s jobs is to read about any controversial, widely discussed topic in the news. One of these articles claimed that our nation’s university system was a failure. As a conclusion this was a bit surprising, since to all appearances universities seem to be doing excessively well; with endless expansion projects and enrollment levels that seem to be racing tuition rates to the top. Despite the encouraging financial success, there is evidence that overall, graduating students are being shortchanged here and there. According to conservative estimates, over half of those between the ages of 20-25 are jobless, while others remain underemployed, flipping burgers or doing any of those other things parents and teachers said would happen to them if they didn’t go to college. A product of this system might be pardoned for questioning the purpose of spending four-ish costly years away from the hamburger griddle. To answer that question, three justifications for the university system as it now stands come to mind: the university as vocational training, as an extended selection process, and as a means of character formation.
Under the vocational training model, a student attends university in order to learn skills and habits that can be immediately used for a specific job, much in the same way that apprentices study carpentry, food service workers perfect that spatula wrist flip, and middle managers learn the technique of delegation. On a large-scale, this model allows for the country’s work force to be replenished by young, energetic workers with the proper training to strengthen the economy with the addition of more producers and consumers. If this is the case though, one is obliged to concede that the university system is little more than a spectacular failure, a cause for grave concern. Perhaps the four-year university is simply too unwieldy and inefficient to provide relevant job training and raise the number of workers quickly enough to compensate for those entering retirement. Students spend more time on classes that are irrelevant to their intended trade, which wastes not only the individual student’s time and money, but that of their country itself. Seeing as how more efficient means of professional training exist (associate’s degrees, union apprenticeship, company training), the university must have a different role to play.
Some would say that this role is that of a selection process for membership in the elite portion of society. It is from the college campus that future doctors, lawyers, politicians, corporate executives and clergy are selected from the mass of undergraduates. It is also at the campus where the students attempt to overcome obstacles in the form of assignments, tests, and other activities that are measured on a grading system. Only those proud few who keep their scores high while involving themselves in many student clubs (not gradable, but a necessary factor in selection) demonstrate the ambition necessary for high position and the attendant honors. The final and most difficult of these obstacles comes after graduation in the form of student loans. The self-entitled might be crushed by the financial load (usually reserved for failed businesses and inept stock traders), while the most qualified of the graduates theoretically will have careers that allow them to pay their off debts. One might argue that the grading system is broken because of pervasive cheating. There are two different outcomes when cheating is involved: the student is caught and subjected to the consequences, or he isn’t caught. In the first, a clumsy thief is removed from the selection process, and under the second, a potential leader uses creative problem-solving to get around an obstacle. In both cases, the grading system is justified.
A critic of this ideal might note that while this model may work well in selecting the best qualified of the student body, it fails to account for the lower percentages that might place as good, while not necessarily the best. According to its proponents, the university as an organ of character formation is the best model because it leaves no adult child behind. The efforts of the student are to be directed toward finding oneself. Issues of identity and individuality are settled at some point through the student’s investigation of any and all courses that catch his fancy. Personal fulfillment is the key here—if the double major in Advanced Calligraphy and Irish Dance coupled with an independent study in Vietnamese Cinema match one’s interests and inclinations, then so much the better. The question of finding work afterward is irrelevant. Anyone committed to this model will tell you that the only thing necessary to follow is one’s dreams, like a rainbow leading to a comfortable job on the coast, or so many had hoped. The reality has recently continued to fall short of the promise. This could perhaps be blamed on the Great Recession or some other random, external event. All that can be known with certainty is that once a student uses the third approach to education, the job choices are suddenly limited to two fields: graduate school and full-time protesting. The latter tends to be directed against the random acts of the invisible hand of the market, which raises one man into the upper percentages of wealth while pushing ten into the gutter.
Those less concerned with social justice have the option of pursuing an advanced degree, taking a path that can, for all intents and purposes, be likened to “climbing the pyramid.” Anyone at the end of a time of no less than four years of study in a field that fits no known occupation may be better off choosing to remain in school in pursuit of a doctorate. The climb to the top makes it necessary to add more debt, while numerous tasks and projects must be completed by the graduate for his mentor in the tenured class. Once this is accomplished, the graduate himself becomes a tenured professor, with graduate assistants of his own, and the responsibility of teaching freshman courses on the discipline he spent fifteen years learning. And so the cycle begins again. The danger with this pursuit is the fact that tenure, like the pyramid, has very little room on the top, and most of those who began the climb have fallen off before.
These three justifications for the existence of universities are in no way meant to be exhaustive. On an individual level, the activity of making excuses for pursuing higher education is only as limited as human imagination and casuistry. But after examining the most commonly invoked reasons for university education, it seems that the critics are mostly correct in saying that a university education, despite its many excellences, isn’t well suited to prepare students for the “outside world.” Professional training can be gotten in a much shorter amount of time and at greatly reduced expense through vocational schools, union apprenticeships, and other forms of on-the-job training. As for a selection process for the very important people: there may be more efficient methods of accomplishing this that don’t create enough unpaid debt to make the housing bubble seem like losing spare change at a dime ante poker game. Viewed in this way, the university will still be little more than an incredibly expensive gamble, one where a student would have little or no guarantee of his bets paying off.
For this reason, the third justification seems the most sound, and it adheres to the idea that the academic system is meant to be a good unto itself. It’s possible that the knowledge acquired in those four years provides one with a profoundly enlightened understanding of oneself that outweighs any worldly concern. Aristotle (as taught in class) famously made the distinction between living and living well; enlightened understanding is both necessary and sufficient for the good life. This great good is such that it can make a penurious life measured by monthly loan payments past the age of eighty quite bearable. George Orwell, writing about his experiences in a poorhouse, said that he could better endure waiting around for work than his fellow tramps because of his education. It had left him with a well-stocked mind that allowed him to pass many idle hours with his meditations. The lessons learned at the university, and the university alone, will allow this generation of graduates to prosper at this unique way of life.