No, Dr. Reich, college is not a waste of time and money. At least it was not. And it shouldn’t be today.
It’s funny that I said this same thing some four and a half decades ago about high school. My high school taught me Latin, English grammar and writing. It taught how to be dutiful to the faith into which I was born. It talked at me. Mostly, it wanted me to stay parochial, and I wouldn’t, for two reasons.
The early ‘60s changin’ times invaded even my high school. Pope John XXIII opened Vatican II. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. headed up the Southern Cristian Leadership Conference. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was founded at Shaw University. Betty Friedan published The Second Sex launching the second phase of the Women’s Right Movement. Much more of the same transpired.
Secondly, my Italian immigrant father who ran his own plumbing business out of our garage wanted college for his three daughters.
At my high school, the nuns were bailing out. I wanted out, too. I felt that life was bigger from whence I came. My four years of college turned out to be a large experience, larger than my life back home just an hour’s drive away. My classes fell like manna from heaven. I will never forget being transported in an Art Appreciation elective. The professor used slides from his visits to world famous museums and ancient sites. “He actually went to all those places?” I thought at the time sitting far back in the auditorium lecture hall. And now I have, too.
At college, I listened to renowned poet John Ciardi, of Italian descent no less, recite, “We are damned for accepting as/the sound a man makes, the sound of something else,/thereby losing the truth of our own sound” at a fold-out table in our library.
An experimental grade school was on campus where those of us majoring in education could observe self-motivated children reach for books or colored pencils across a round room with orders from no one and not misbehavin’. Educational reformist John Bremer who designed the first School Without Walls came to tell us about it. Bremer would remind us that “institutions are human organizations.” Because they are only human, they risk running afoul of their mission, and they bend to patronage. Education should be designed to lead to “freedom of the soul.” Students become creators of their own meaning, they recognize the power of their own knowledge. And this is done through teaching the humanities.
Long before Bremer, came Horace Mann, the son of a Yankee farmer and father of the Common School Movement. What he wanted to see common in all of us was a free education that teaches character and moves us to participate in society. He had the political clout to deliver that vision. Education, said Mann, should bring all classes of children together. America’s children should have a universal learning experience that would then “equalize the conditions of men.” Our antebellum public schools were staffed by those trained at teachers’ colleges up until post World War II. Mann later founded Antioch College where still today at each commencement ceremony Mann’s 1859 message to that graduating class is repeated: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”
Earl Shorris, who died recently in 2012, founded the Clemente Course in the Humanities where disadvantaged students study philosophy, history, art, literature and logic for a year—not remedial English and math and job training. Instead, one’s way out of poverty is “reflection,” he said. He saw the study of the humanities “in itself a redistribution of wealth.”
During my time, those not college bound could attend community and technical colleges that offered no frills skills training without embellishments like Introduction to Biology. I felt happy not to be there, a cultural hair’s breath away. I had hit pay dirt, my kind of gold. I thank my parents for sending me. I graduated debt free from my affordable state college and continued on my own.
Who are our thought leaders today? Horace Mann studied at Brown University and graduated valedictorian. John Bremer attended a number of colleges, including Cambridge and St. John’s in the U.S. Earl Shorris almost finished at the University of Chicago on a full scholarship. I attended Kent State, St. Michael’s College, and Cleveland State. You attended many fine colleges including Dartmouth and Yale.
To tell our youth and their parents that college is a ludicrous waste of time and money is an affront.
I cannot say what has happened to the college experience today. Why there seems to be an epidemic of binge drinking and sexual exploitation. Why capital construction on campuses rivals fine residential gated communities. Why we see college branches everywhere like fast food franchises. Why 50% of faculty hold only part-time appointments. Why the colossal cost of education has shifted to 18 to 26-year-olds without taxpayers and legislators batting an eyelash. And why our colleges now reflect the predominant national income disparity.
I only attribute these conditions to our having lost our way from the likes of Mann’s vision of an equalized America, Bremer’s as a more actualized America, and Shorris’ as a more deliberative America.
Several months ago, I asked a masters’ level student of mine who has children to worry about, a good job to maintain, a language barrier to overcome, and loans to repay, why she was putting herself through all this. Her answer with no coaching from me: “I want to do something bigger.”
No, you’ve got it wrong, Professor and Secretary. An education is not just an opportunity to get a good job. Good jobs come with good educations and deep learning. Well-educated people can then become well-trained.