To put the point in a nutshell: does anyone benefit from a traditional four-year college education? If it went away, or came to be seen as a luxury tailored to a wealthy elite, who would be worse off?Formative is not the same thing as prefigurative or transformative.
When I raise this question with my own undergraduate students, they generally emphasize the value of college as a coming-of-age experience. This strikes me as a poor justification for the four-year university. Before the mid-century expansion of higher ed, people came of age without taking on $80,000-worth of debt in the process. If college is valued primarily as a social experience, we should close down most of the four-year colleges and open more youth social clubs. People could come of age for the cost of a gym membership, not the cost of a house.
Nevertheless, my students’ instincts are not completely off base. They are right to suggest that our educational expenditures can be justified, if at all, only through the complete impact that a four-year education can have on the student’s character. Higher education should be a formative experience, both intellectually and morally, and should leave students better equipped to tackle a whole range of possible challenges that the future might bring.
To a considerable degree, the university has become the victim of its own egalitarianism. Liberal progressivism has, to be sure, been poisoning the well for quite some time, and this alone would probably have prevented us from developing a fully satisfactory liberal arts education outside of a few select cultural enclaves. But the really insoluble problems date back to the mid-twentieth century, when the foundations of America’s great egalitarian experiment were laid.Yes, and the damage is consequential.
Student retention is a critical goal for almost every college or university; after all, a student who drops out will no longer be paying tuition. And it turns out that the best way to keep everyone in the pack is to hike the pace of the slowest hiker. Student evaluations are an effective mechanism for ensuring that professors cooperate with this broader student-retention strategy. Anyone who doubts the seriousness of that institutional pressure should try telling an untenured professor that his evaluations from the previous semester included multiple complaints that the class made students “feel stupid.” Witness the hunted, desperate expression that passes over the instructor’s face.The beginning of wisdom, however, is the recognition that some things are more challenging than they seem. The professor's calling is to create that beginning, uncomfortable though it might make some of the novices.