On the Question: “Is College for Everyone?”

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Leaving aside the absurd claim that each young person is somehow socially remiss without the full “college experience,” a more useful and infinitely more important line of thought asks, “Is college for everyone?” Since the generation that fought and won the Second World War returned home, the expectation has continued to the current day that college is essential and ought to be secured by everyone, whatever the costs. However, there are more than monetary debts incurred by the cultural standardization of education, a virtual assembly-line that, rather than encouraging the pursuit of truth and development of character, suppresses thoughts, beliefs and views contrary to the accepted norm, a constantly expanding code of conduct defined by the ever-shifting sands of political correctness. This process of dehumanizing education, subordinating the individuality of learning to the one-size-must-fit-all methods we now witness is hardly new. Coolidge saw its incremental influence on the culture in his time, as he warned, “Progress depends very largely on the encouragement of variety. Whatever tends to standardize the community, to establish fixed and rigid modes of thought, tends to fossilize society. If we all believed the same thing and thought the same thoughts and applied the same valuations to all the occurrences about us, we should reach a state of equilibrium closely akin to an intellectual and spiritual paralysis. It is the ferment of ideas, the clash of disagreeing judgments, the privilege of the individual to develop his own thoughts and shape his own character, that makes progress possible.”

Coolidge also thought through whether college should be forced on everyone alike. Is it the essential stepping-stone to success that it was once thought to be? Is such a cultural coercion really necessary or right? What if there is a more fundamental purpose to higher education than expecting everyone to find equal success through the same system? Merely pursuing advanced degrees in technical fields, the most important training is denied, mocked and neglected: a cultivation of the moral virtues, the very building blocks for life, whatever one chooses to be and do. The alternative is hardly an abandonment of continued education. It simply and reasonably asks whether the returns on what has been invested are yielding better people and good works. To answer that question, however, the reason for college must be defined. Is it, first, as Coolidge enumerates, “merely to train sufficient leaders in thought for the professions and statecraft”? Then education is only for an elite few, a class born to leadership, an assembly carefully selected for their value to government and large concerns around the world.

Coolidge presents an alternative, a second reason for college. It is “a general preparation for life, a method by which individual existence is broadened and sweetened.” It was more than maximizing the “college experience,” taking full advantage of the opportunity to “sow wild oats.” Rather it required the sober-minded application not only of the intellect but of the whole person — including the spiritual nature within each individual — to the preparation of life well-lived. This theory “sees no reason for confining the colleges to the professions or to those of exceptional capacity. Certainly the world now rewards the trades to an even higher degree than it does some professions. If we would stop thinking that a bachelor of arts must be a white-collar man and let him be any kind of man he is adapted to be, the danger of spoiling a good craftsman to make a poor professional man would vanish.” It would do no good to predetermine or plan where someone belongs based on their educational credentials. That road leads backward to caste and serfdom not forward to freedom and opportunity. Coolidge would have no part in an “aristocracy of learning.” If colleges accomplished their true mission, ministering to the mind, body — and the soul — there would be no hierarchy of higher learning, no pressuring young men and women to conform to a preset future or status to secure whatever constitutes success in society. “Every life needs more light,” Coolidge believed. Classical education furnishes that light.

Suppressing individual interests and aptitudes to whatever those with authority deem necessary to global competition (as “workers of the world,” after all) is merely another way of grooming a fixed class of mendicants looking to government for placement in all of life. Whereas career skills have limited power, the development of character is unlimited and something we all, however humble our vocation, would be bettered thereby.

College graduates after all “will not be judged by their diplomas but by what they produce. As the years pass some of them will discover that they put too much emphasis in their student days on how to get a living and not enough on how to live. Even if they do not appear so successful in the competition for gain, those who have a background of liberal culture have a satisfaction that wealth cannot buy. One great benefit of a college education is a better appreciation of the real values of life.” If that is what college accomplishes, then who can say it is not for you? If you ignore the failure of colleges in this essential, no amount of professional expertise will compensate for what it will cost your soul.

One thought on “On the Question: “Is College for Everyone?”

  1. This is a complex set of issues. I for one don’t think the “college is not for everyone” people have thought the issues out. And here Coolidge offers some insights. He speaks about variety – and indeed the US system of higher education has (and certainly did in his time) have lots of variety – public, independent/ large, small and a host of other varieties.

    But there is a second issue here – should we be directing some group of students to the trades/vocational education. From my experience, in an around higher education for almost half a century, the answer is mostly no. College (or what happens after high school) should not just include a set of technical skills. And much of what happens in vocational education limits itself to that. A better approach for all of higher education means offering a broad range of students opportunities for as Coolidge calls it “learning how to live…a better appreciation for the real values of life” – from my perspective that would include some understanding of civic virtues. Unfortunately many colleges and universities see the credentialing that they do today as a set of courses rather than a process. When they talk about values they limit their thinking to a narrow set of politically correct codas that probably dumb down what Coolidge was actually talking about. In Spanish educators talk about formation rather than education. I think that is what Coolidge was thinking about.

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