One day last spring, a student came by to discuss a problem that had troubled her about a novel we had just finished. Her grasp of theoretical issues and her ability to pick up the more subtle nuances of the novel prompted me to ask her why she was majoring in physical therapy rather than literature or philosophy. "I adore books," she said, "but I want a job when I graduate."
Is this what college really is about -- vocational preparation? Or is the intent of a college education to do much more than that? Since we are entering another school year, it may be worth asking ourselves what we can and should expect of a college education.
At its best, a college education connects us to a rich past that offers a context for understanding the present. It encourages critical reflection. It helps students recognize the diversity of views that characterize this complex and constantly changing world. It stimulates their imaginations.
A good college education is the first step toward the development of mature citizens who can make the kinds of choices modern society demands of its young people, a society in which survival involves much more than how much money a person earns. A good education makes possible what W.E.B. DuBois once called "that fine adjustment which forms the secret of civilization."
To get the most out of such an education, what a student studies is important. The best students engage in intellectually compelling subjects, such as history and literature and philosophy. These students don't confuse breadth of knowledge with the acquisition of skills. I always urge students, when they ask my advice, to study what will excite them and introduce them to the enormous variety that exists in the world beyond. The good student, open to experience, can, as the poet William Blake once said, "see a world in a grain of sand."
Let me illustrate this with an example that may seem as remote from the development of good citizenship as one can imagine -- the study of poetry. I am convinced that people who have learned to be comfortable with poetry have learned to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty. As with all great art, there is something eternally elusive about a good poem. Developing such a tolerance and a willingness to postpone gratification is to develop qualities that will serve the student well in the future. In fact, an editor of Fortune recently defined the prerequisites for effective business leadership in precisely those terms.
It has been my experience that too many students do not understand how to tap a college's resources. Even worse, they don't know that they don't know what constitutes a good education. They are unprepared, both intellectually and emotionally. Many of them are deficient in the basic skills. Many claim to have never written an essay before college and are not accustomed to reading books. Many lack a sense of history.
Many are easily "bored" by whatever isn't immediately apparent. Many seem not to understand that the real cost of an education needs to be measured not only in terms of money but also in hard work, perseverance and patience. Worst of all, many students appear contemptuous of the very process they are engaged in. This situation does not strike me as the most fertile ground for cultivating judgment, stimulating intellectual curiosity or preparing mature citizens.
To be fair, it is not only students who are at fault. Many colleges and universities pay far less attention to what occurs in the classroom than to faculty success in research and publication, partly because teaching is much more difficult to evaluate. The result is that colleges and universities tolerate mediocre and sometimes poor teaching. In addition, many schools have abandoned their responsibility to help define exactly what a good education is, leaving it up to students to decide what courses to take and when to take them. This strikes me as consumerism at its worst; surely a case when the (18-year-old) customer doesn't know best.
Given the realities, should we then lower our expectations of a college education? I think not. For all the failures of the educational system, good students are still managing to make their way through the system and are flourishing. What distinguishes these students is their self-motivation, their capacity for actively seeking out the worthwhile resources that any good college has. These students do not passively accept poor teaching or unchallenging courses. And they create their own structure when confronted with a paucity of educational requirements.
What to do about the rest is a matter for society at large to decide. Education -- at whatever level -- is probably the most valuable resource this nation possesses. Yet the contempt with which many students treat their education is not something they were born with or learned in school alone. It is a contempt endemic to our society, and until we learn to value what our schools have to offer, a college education for many will be an expensive and questionable credential.
GEORGE R. LEVINE has taught English at the University at Buffalo since 1963.