What Is the Purpose of a College Education?

March 3, 2015

An arresting sentence in David Brooks’s column this in the NYT this morning on Leaving and Cleaving:

…to be around college students these days is to observe how many parents have failed to successfully start their their child’s transition into adulthood.

Strong words, but accurate, I think. It brought to mind something I found myself saying from time to time in conversations with professors. The occasion was usually their complaining that such-and-such was not their job. Their role was to teach their subject matter and to do their research. Mayhem in the dorms or crises in students’ relationships were none of their business, they’d say.

And I’d ask, why do you suppose parents are willing to pay us $30,000 (or $40,000 or $10,000) a year for their child’s education? Do you suppose it is to learn Shakespeare or organic chemistry or even critical thinking?  Perhaps, a few have such motivations, I’d say, but deep down I think most parents have a deeper motivation. They want us to perform a stupendous trick.

They want us to remove their child from their household, keep the child for four (or so) years, and then insert that child into adult roles: a paying job and a relationship that will lead to marriage and grandchildren. Deep down, those parents aren’t too interested in how we perform this trick so long as we do it. They are a bit frightened that their child hasn’t grown up yet, and frightened that they are significantly to blame for that failure to raise their child toward adulthood. Now they are willing to pay us significant money to do it for them.

I’d want the professor I was speaking with to see her/his role more broadly than s/he was inclined.

By and large residential liberal arts colleges do perform that trick and fairly reliably. We invite students to live in community, to bear an increasing share of responsibility for their learning and their living, and we provide a watchful eye and coaching to see that the transition to adulthood goes well.

I see the promise of on-line education for some narrow purposes of education, but I have my doubts that MOOCs can perform this trick.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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