Tuesday, September 9, 2014

What Should You Get from a College Education?

Learning how to think is only the beginning, though. There’s something in particular you need to think about: building a self. The notion may sound strange. “We’ve taught them,” David Foster Wallace once said, “that a self is something you just have.” But it is only through the act of establishing communication between the mind and the heart, the mind and experience, that you become an individual, a unique being—a soul. The job of college is to assist you to begin to do that. Books, ideas, works of art and thought, the pressure of the minds around you that are looking for their own answers in their own ways.
Back in my college years I might have agreed to that. Now it seems rather quaint.

Back in the Twin Willows days on the shore of Lake Erie my teacher, Dave Hays, who was very much concerned about education and who stopped giving to his alma mater, Harvard, because he disliked what it had become, said he thought a college education ought to be equally divided into four components: 1) general knowledge of the world (aka a liberal education), 2) a marketable skill, 3) something you're passionate about, and 4) something else. I wish I could remember the something else, but I can't, and I can't come up with a fourth on my own. So I'm left with the three I can remember.

And it's a good three. If a student accomplishes those in style, I rather think that the self will happen in due course. There's no need to fetishize it as an independent good.

As for the depression statistics Deresiewicz cites, I'm not so sure that's a bad thing. Yes, clinical depression is a bad thing. Feeling depressed, not necessarily. It seems to me that a certain amount of depression goes along with reorganizing your mind, which is the tough business that college is about. In a reply to critics Deresiewicz mentions:
One rebuttal to my article by a current Yale student mentioned, in a different connection, that roughly half of that institution’s undergraduates “access the school’s mental health and counseling services at some point," without bothering to pause over the significance of that remarkable fact.
On the face of it, I don't find that especially bothersome, assuming of course, that the students got competent help.

I think there's plenty wrong with the American education system, top to bottom, and I have no particular love for elite colleges and universities. But I don't see that Deresiewicz has any particularly valuable insights about the latter.

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Here's my account of three elite schools.

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