What is the purpose of college?
Barry Schwartz has taught at Swarthmore College for 42 years. In this article he discusses how the dangerous push to change colleges from institutions that teach people how to live into schools that teach people how to earn a living. There are many trade schools for those who want to learn a skill, to earn a living, and there is certainly nothing wrong with them, but colleges have traditionally been regarded as transformative institutions, where a student learned how to be a complete, well educated human being, with a solid understanding of the world (based on the best examples of human knowledge), and what it means to be human and to live well. Professor Schwartz states his idea of higher education’s purpose a little differently, more concisely, but I’m sure we’d agree on the fundamental principles. Here are Professor Schwartz’s four questions that higher education should equip students to answer for themselves.
- What is worth knowing?
- What is worth doing?
- What makes for a good human life?
- What are my responsibilities to other people?
Two needs in conflict
There are two basic needs in conflict here. On one side, students need to be capable of leaving school and earning a living, and earning enough to not only support themselves, but ideally a family, and of course they must pay off the often huge debt they owe at the conclusion of their studies. On the other hand, an individual needs to become an educated human being to live well. A good life requires the ability to think seriously about the questions above and to apply those conclusions to conduct in society. Society requires a large number of educated individuals to thrive. These two needs are not necessarily in conflict, and were not traditionally as far as I know, but we find them increasingly in conflict due to the demands placed on colleges today.
Without the first need being satisfied, we will continue to have students with good educations who are hindered in living well because they are burdened by (at least relative) poverty due to their student debt and lack of obvious skills that make them sought after by businesses. If this continues indefinitely, we will approach a point where traditional college education is only affordable and (generally) pursued by those who are independently wealthy. Because of the intellectual (and potential market and political) power a traditional college education conveys, this will result in more power concentrated in the hands of the wealthy and privileged, and a society influenced almost exclusively by these privileged few. The privileged will remain few, because financially poor but intellectually gifted individuals will have a very difficult path to climb from poverty to prosperity through a good education, and will thus be hindered from contributing their ideas to society.
On the other hand, we have the need for an individual to become an educated human being, to be able to think seriously about the questions above and to apply her conclusions to her conduct in society. An uneducated person, ignorant of the major forces that shape our world and how to work toward good with these forces in play, cannot live well (by most definitions of living well). They can live for themselves of course, but even that will be greatly hindered by ignorance of science and mathematics, and the intentions of powerful people and groups to shape the world in their image, which is often opposed to the interest of the ignorant (to keep them so) and the poor (to maintain them in poverty and thus lacking the power to challenge the powerful).