Why go to college? What do students learn?

Summary: America spends vast sums sending its youth to college; they spend four of their prime years at college. What do they get? What does America get? What should they get?


America already spends fantastic resources providing post-secondary educations to its young (2.6% of GDP), plus of course, the years students spend at college (their prime, high-energy years). Many of the Democratic candidates for president want to spend even more, and shift more of the cost from the students to the taxpayers. Lost in this debate is awareness of what students and the nation get in return.

In 2009, John Robb gave some answers at his website Global Guerrillas in ”I’m Young and Need Advice“, replying to someone asking “What should I be doing to prepare myself for an uncertain future?” I recommend reading the post in full, as this post gives only a brief excerpt to his insightful answer. Robb gives three answers. First, he wisely suggests a goal for them.

“You will need train yourself to be an entrepreneur, to run your own business. This requires an ability to do everything from designing your own products to selling products to keeping the books straight.”

Second, he suggests going to college – and explains why.

“{Y}ou should still go to college …. For the most part, it’s not going to play much of a factor in how you make your living in the future (for most people). Instead, do it because it improves you as a human being. Learn about everything you can while you are there, from philosophy to physics.”

Third, Robb recommends acquiring a very broad skill set.

“Here’s the maximal strategy for those that can pull it off (I’m assuming that if you are reading my work and you understand it, you certainly have the smarts to pull it off). Learn to make/repair things. Learn computer aided design CAD/CAM. Ride the wave in learning laser etching, 3D printing, and other fabrication techniques. Learn how to use traditional tools and explore materials science and basic electronics/circuit design. Hack existing products (copy what others have done to spool up on the process) to improve them or put them to unintended uses. Add some biohacking to the mix if you are so inclined.

“Learn how to communicate/collaborate with others online. Better yet, learn how to use a scripting language and design/operate an interactive Web site. Learn how to build a database and structure/share data (xml). Get the hang of publishing online and building/growing an audience – it’s a great way not only to market product/yourself, but find collaborators on ventures.”

I have a different perspective, which gives radically different answers.

Money & career success

Reason #1: career goals

Not everybody wants or is suited to be an entrepreneur. I know, as I’m not – having worked in government and mega-corps my entire life. Career advice should above all teach the young that there are a thousand paths to a successful life.

Reason #3: acquiring skills

Robb suggests that students learn a large number of varied skills (although Robb’s list is oddly specific). Sherlock Holmes gives a different recommendation in A Study in Scarlet.

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order.”

I believe advising students to promiscuously learn little bits of many things encourages drifting, idly picking up superficial skills and knowledge under the illusion that they will inevitably add up to something meaningful.

Life is a brief journey, and I believe it’s best conducted with a map. We each get to draw our own map, and alter it on the road.  Decide what you want to do, and then list what skills you’ll need. Getting advice about your chart is valuable, and you’ll find a surprising number of experienced people will be happy to help. Your list will improve as you gain experience and knowledge. Life is like any other journey. Decide where you’re going, and provide suitable intellectual equipment for your journey. Snowshoes will not help in the jungle. If you’re packing for the arctic, don’t include an ice machine just because it’s cheap and looks fun to use.

Master a few skills – then go out into the world and use them. As the years pass, new opportunities will appear – each requiring new knowledge and skills. The great illusion of our current system is that learning is a phase of life, after which you go out into the world. That is daft.

Reason #2: what you get from college

The simple answer: an essential credential required in our mad society for all kinds of simple jobs. That is an expensive glitch.

To learn about the education from college, I strongly recommend reading one of the greatest books ever written about this: Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. Here are two excerpts from his long and rich analysis in which he demolishes the fake promises made by America’s elite colleges (it does not apply to community colleges). From pp 336-337.

Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students
Available at Amazon.

“What image does a first-rank college or university present today to a teenager leaving home for the first time, off to the adventure of a liberal education? He has four years of freedom to discover himself – a space between the intellectual wasteland he has left behind and the inevitable dreary professional training that awaits him after the baccalaureate. In this short time he must learn that there is a great world beyond the little one he knows, experience the exhilaration of it and digest enough of it to sustain himself in the intellectual deserts he is destined to traverse. He must do this, that is, if he is to have any hope of a higher life.

“These are the charmed years when he can, if he so chooses, become anything he wishes and when he has the opportunity to survey his alternatives, not merely those current in his time or provided by careers, but those available to him as a human being. The importance of these years for an American cannot be overestimated. They are civilization’s only chance to get to him.

“In looking at him we are forced to reflect on what he should learn if he is to be called educated; we must speculate on what the human potential to be fulfilled is. In the specialties we can avoid such speculation, and the avoidance of them is one of specialization’s charms. But here it is a simple duty. What are we to teach this person?

“The answer may not be evident, but to attempt to answer the question is already to philosophize and to begin to educate. Such a concern in itself poses the question of the unity of man and the unity of the sciences. It is childishness to say, as some do, that everyone must be allowed to develop freely, that it is authoritarian to impose a point of view on the student. In that case, why have a university? If the response is ‘to provide an atmosphere for learning,’ we come back to our original questions at the second remove. Which atmosphere? Choices and reflection on the reasons for those choices are unavoidable. The university has to stand for something.

“The practical effects of unwillingness to think positively about the contents of a liberal education are, on the one hand, to ensure that all the vulgarities of the world outside the university will flourish within it, and, on the other, to impose a much harsher and more illiberal necessity on the student – the one given by the imperial and imperious demands of the specialized disciplines unfiltered by unifying thought.

“The university now offers no distinctive visage to the young person. He finds a democracy of the disciplines – which are there either because they are autochthonous or because they wandered in recently to perform some job that was demanded of the university. This democracy is really an anarchy, because there are no recognized rules for citizenship and no legitimate titles to rule. In short there is no vision, nor is there a set of competing visions, of what an educated human being is. The question has disappeared, for to pose it would be a threat to the peace. There is no organization of the sciences, no tree of knowledge.

“Out of chaos emerges dispiritedness, because it is impossible to make a reasonable choice. Better to give up on liberal education and get on with a specialty in which there is at least a prescribed curriculum and a prospective career. On the way the student can pick up in elective courses a little of whatever is thought to make one cultured. The student gets no intimation that great mysteries might be revealed to him, that new and higher motives of action might be discovered within him, that a different and more human way of life can be harmoniously constructed by what he is going to learn.

“Thus, when a student arrives at the university, he finds a bewildering variety of departments and a bewildering variety of courses. And there is no official guidance, no university-wide agreement, about what he should study. Nor does he usually find readily available examples, either among students or professors, of a unified use of the university’s resources. It is easiest simply to make a career choice and go about getting prepared for that career.

“The programs designed for those having made such a choice render their students immune to charms that might lead them out of the conventionally respectable. The sirens sing sotto voce these days, and the young already have enough wax in their ears to pass them by without danger. These specialties can provide enough courses to take up most of their time for four years in preparation for the inevitable graduate study. With the few remaining courses they can do what they please, taking a bit of this and a bit of that. No public career these days – not doctor nor lawyer nor politician nor journalist nor businessman nor entertainer – has much to do with humane learning. An education, other than purely professional or technical, can even seem to be an impediment. That is why a countervailing atmosphere in the university would be necessary for the students to gain a taste for intellectual pleasures and learn that they are viable.

That’s the good news. Here’s the bad news, from pages 87-88. Except as professional preparatory schools, the universities are designed to give the students nothing useful in exchange for their great expense – and the even more valuable four years of their lives (and most of the pre-law and pre-med classes are of little use in their professions).

“This indeterminate or open-ended future and the lack of a binding past mean that the souls of young people are in a condition like that of the first men in the state of nature – spiritually unclad, unconnected, isolated, with no inherited or unconditional connection with anything or anyone. They can be anything they want to be, but they have no particular reason to want to be anything in particular.

“Not only are they free to decide their place, but they are also free to decide whether they will believe in God or be atheists, or leave their options open by being agnostic; whether they will be straight or gay, or, again, keep their options open; whether they will marry and whether they will stay married; whether they will have children – and so on endlessly. There is no necessity, no morality, no social pressure, no sacrifice to be made that militates going in or turning away from any of these directions, and there are desires pointing toward each, with mutually contradictory arguments to buttress them. The young are exaggerated versions of Plato’s description of the young in democracies.

‘[The democratic youth] lives along day by day, gratifying the desire that occurs to him, at one time drinking and listening to the flute, at another downing water and reducing, now practicing gymnastic, and again idling and neglecting everything; and sometimes spending his time as though he were occupied with philosophy. Often he engages in politics and, jumping up, says and does whatever chances to come to him; and if he admires any soldiers, he turns in that direction; and if it’s moneymakers, in that one, and there is neither order nor necessity in his life, but calling it sweet, free and blessed, he follows it throughout. (The Republic, 56ic-d.)’

“Why are we surprised that such unfurnished persons should be preoccupied principally with themselves and with finding means to avoid permanent free fall? No wonder that the one novel that remains continuously popular with students is Camus’ The Stranger.”

———— End excerpt. ————

Bloom provides a solution, but you’ll have to read the book to discover what it is.


The very bad news

Of course, this is exactly what we should expect. Universities in the West were originally created to train priests. Then they became finishing students for the aristocracy, keeping their young men out of trouble for a few years. Now that same system is “educating” a large fraction of our youth. But with no idea of what education means (except for the Left, who are hijacking the universities and converting them to ideological training camps).

This is America’s grifter economy in action. Like the military and health care, the education sector extracts resources from the nation disproportionate to anything it gives in return. Like those sectors, it has moved beyond control or even feedback from America’s society or institutions. As with those other two sectors, our youth pay the price for our irresponsible management of America.

For More Information

Ideas! For some shopping ideas see my recommended books and films at Amazon. Also, see a story about our future: Ultra Violence: Tales from Venus.

I recommend reading The Student Loan Mess: How Good Intentions Created a Trillion-Dollar Problem by Joel and Eric Best (U California Press, 2014).

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Also see all posts about universities, about education, and especially these …

  1. College education in America, another broken business model.
  2. The secret about our universities (seldom even whispered among Professors).
  3. Is a college education worth a million dollars?
  4. Education is not a solution to automation.
  5. Feminist revolutionaries seized control of colleges. Now come the tribunals…
  6. Women on Top, chapter 10: the growing gender gap in education.
  7. An anthropologist looks at our universities & sees weirdness.
  8. James Kunstler: the coming collapse of universities.
  9. Harsh medicine to fix America’s universities.

Books about the decay of our universities

University, Inc: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education by Jennifer Washburn (2005).

Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education by Roger Kimball (1990).

University, Inc: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education
Available at Amazon.
Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education
Available at Amazon.

3 thoughts on “Why go to college? What do students learn?”

  1. LK: Of course, this is exactly what we should expect. Universities in the West were originally created to train priests.

    They still are.

  2. I had to take two college credits in PE to graduate. Seriously I took a course in walking. Apparently I’d been doing it wrong. In hindsight it was designed to give coaches a “real” position and justify being a coach or something.

  3. I wanted to write a reply to this, but it became too long and detailed. Would just say that to give a proper account of this you have to separate the sciences, business education and the liberal arts.

    Within the last, language departments, history, philosophy and literature functioned and evolved differently, and the environment in America and Britain diverged also.

    There is quite an unavoidably long essay to be written about it. At some level in general studies or liberal arts programs, the universtities were seeking to teach what they thought the students needed to know in order to be good citizens – what they needed to know of their societies’ history, artistic and political achievements and also some logical training in how to think.

    How they went about this, and what the content was, and to what extent they thought there was an unquestionable canon of ‘great books’ varied over the twentieth century, and varied between countries.

    I don’t think it fair to say that what students in liberal arts courses were being put through in the fifties through the seventies was what had been designed for finishing aristocrats. It was a series of efforts, many misguided, to teach them what was assumed necessary for good citizenship.

    Bloom is very fine in some ways. But his positive ideal is one only possible, suitable, valuable, for an elite. He is also hampered by his enthusiasm for the swamp into which German philosophy ran in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

    I don’t know what the solution is. What’s clear is that in both the US and the UK lots of people are ending up with huge debts and no intellectual equipment of any value to them either professionally or personally. Its also clear that the liberal arts have been thoroughly contaminated with the effluvia of the Left Bank nonsense factory.

    People I know are increasingly advising their children to avoid university, and resisting financing it, as this gradually becomes generally known.

    I am personally grateful to my own liberal arts teachers, before I turned to science, for having equipped me in ways personally enriching for a lifetime. But I recognize that most people would not want or profit from it, and many would regard the habits of mind that it produced to be no better than intellectual snobbery.

    Perhaps the answer is, learn a skill. It can be science, law, medicine, accounting, plumbing, programming, languages. And don’t feel obliged to do it at a university. And avoid liberal arts programs – philosophy, history, literature, gender studies etc – at least until the Left Bank has sunk without trace under the rising waves of populism!

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