The first lesson taught to me upon entrance into the Ashbrook Scholar Program was what "school" meant. It gave me pause when asked to define something that had been an almost-central part of my life and those of all I knew. After struggling for a few brief moments to try find a definition, its etymology was revealed to be Greek in origin, of course. Schole
is Greek for "leisure," and gives us our school. The first thing that Ashbrooks come to appreciate even before delving into the great questions of good and justice is that we have the tremendous opportunity to indulge in the leisurely study of the liberal arts because we do not have to spend all of our time working in the field just to feed ourselves. One can only explore these noble studies if one does not need to work. It then follows that education is itself an end, not a means to an end, and our studies were to help us figure out what that end was.
In the midst of this recession, as families lose much and thus increasingly lose their ability to enjoy leisure, many have turned their pens against the modern college, questioning if it is "worth it
" to study. The question is itself very much right to ask, but mostly because over the past half-century we have redefined what worthy means in regards to a university education. The radical transformation of colleges has redefined education in general in our nation, and for most now the worth of an education is judged by its cost-effectiveness and the economic status it gives those who chase it. College is no longer an end, but a means-- the supposed path to a marketable resume and a better job. The modern academy helped push along this transformation in thinking itself, and finds itself under the belief that it needs to evolve to keep up with the new way of thinking of colleges. For many, now, college is but a four-year vacation from life that gives people a Bachelors degree at the end-- something which itself has been watered down from being a symbol of a well-educated, well-rounded student of the arts and sciences to essentially another high school diploma.
Rather than seeking to shape our culture
, the academy insists on bending to its every whim and pleasure. It is not enough to have a bed, a dining hall, good books, and thoughtful teachers-- universities must be palaces offering unparalleled amenities and rock-climbing walls to its students. Students cannot be pushed too hard or given bad grades-- it's bad for business. No, let them choose from a cafeteria of tasting courses so that they can think they are trying a bit of everything while instead focusing on those business degrees
and not really bothering with art, Shakespeare, or silly old Socrates. However, universities should start to seriously rethink their unyielding desire to spoil rather than challenge their students, because many of them are beginning to realize that the exorbitant costs associated with such things are not worth the price, especially in a recession. Today the average student graduates with over $23,000 worth of debt
-- and are starting to question why they spent all that money now that they can't find a job.
The Pope Center's Jenna Ashley Robinson has a good series of articles looking at the potential economic ramifications of the "College Bubble"
that has been created, highlighting the stark contrast between the 1940s and today. In the beginning of the last century, most people acquired the skills needed for their work from on-the-job training or life experiences, and universities were mostly private institutions that people went to if they could afford it but otherwise were not of central importance to the economy. As the century progressed, so did the belief that everyone not only should
attend college, but must
attend college if they want to do anything. Following this trend, the cost of higher education grew dramatically
--286% from 1990 to 2010 alone. This has created a new bubble, she argues, with skyrocketing prices and what might be temporarily excessive enrollment numbers. Students do not see value attached to their costly degrees anymore. If colleges do not do some reevaluating of what School means today, then when this bubble bursts there will be empty palaces full of leftover Natty Light cans and dirty plastic cups across the country.
A college education is an excellent thing and I certainly wish all who want
it had the means to enjoy it. But, for it to be worthwhile colleges have to understand what an education is worth. Yes, we need people trained to be doctors, mechanics, teachers, lawyers, physicists, accountants, and engineers-- but the education has to be about more than just job training and economic value. Instead of a college education being focused on a career, it should be focused on preparing individuals both for their chosen path in life but also for living as free and thoughtful human beings, the liberal arts
being central to this noble goal. Young people realize this; they know they are not getting what they deserve for these exorbitant prices they pay, yet they continue to pay them in the hope that, just maybe, they will come across an educator willing to help fan that flame of intellectual curiosity burning within their souls. They want to be challenged, and until universities realize that they will face a bleak future went people stop wasting their money on a four year vacation. There are, thankfully, such wonderful things as the Ashbrook Scholar Program
here helping young people to truly enjoy school and fighting the good fight for the study of the liberal arts. Good for us.