Each time I open to The New York Times op/ed page and read one of David Brooks’s pontifications on the moral values that define America, I shudder. So it’s with great horror that I find myself wishing to do the exact same thing. I apologize.
It’s an unacknowledged fact that, as students at this University, we’re extremely privileged. Just count the number of BMWs with out-of-state plates, North Face fleeces and Motorola RAZRs on South University Avenue any given night, and it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that this University is filled with richer-than-average students who have supportive parents. I’m not trying to pass a value judgment – just to make a point.
Sure, we all worked hard to get here, but – speaking in averages – we’re all beneficiaries of fate, of fortunate circumstances beyond our control.
Of course, higher education has always been a province of the privileged. By historical measures, modern society is doing fairly well on the Egalitarian Index. Considering that higher education is now considered a birthright for children of the upper-middle class, society has come quite far from the days when ninth grade was a luxury.
By most standards, this “democratization” of higher education is a good thing. Economically, it makes perfect sense. When Gov. Jennifer Granholm and journalist Thomas Friedman extol of the values of higher education as a policy tool, they’re not speaking ignorantly.
It’s not that an undergraduate education imparts a great deal of useful knowledge; getting a B.A. in economics does not make you an economist any more than getting a B.S. in biochemistry makes you a doctor. But a bachelor’s degree of any type does make you richer – by, according to one estimate, more than $20,000 a year.
I’m not going to elaborate on the economic upside of higher education. Only a fool would ignore the role of higher education in any economic and development policy.
Regrettably, however, this mode of thinking has encouraged us to view higher education as just another commodity to be bought and sold.
Today, a “liberal education” isn’t about improving one’s intellectual identity. It’s about creating a better future for oneself. The vast majority of students come to the University because in exchange for roughly four years’ tuition money, it supplies each of us with a priceless basket of benefits. It’s a win-win business transaction that, among many other things, increases expected lifetime earnings, allows aspiring lawyers to attend law school and makes each customer’s future brighter.
A century ago, it wasn’t that way. A college degree wasn’t the mere precondition for financial prosperity that it is today; anyone rich enough to attend college in 1890 was probably independently assured of a cushy lifestyle. Wealthy parents sent their sons to college because a liberal education was necessary to become a well-rounded, responsible, respectable citizen. Read the text inscribed over Angell Hall: Education wasn’t considered a means to money – it was a means to guarantee responsible civic participation.
All too often, in the rat race to get ahead, we forget the original goal of public higher education – of higher education as a whole. Higher education is still a province of the privileged, but now – because we’re not all princes, Carnegies and Rockefellers – it’s easy for us to forget our privilege.
I’m not radical enough to suggest we drop our career plans in favor of public servitude. But it’s sad that our current state of affairs – the dog-eat-dog competition we have to deal with every day – has blinded us to goals unrelated to personal gain. It’s a race I’ve participated in, but that doesn’t make me happy – or OK – with it.
At the risk of sounding cynical, I’ll venture that many, many students “get involved” because they want to pad resumes. We’ve all registered for – and then slept through – an otherwise-worthless class (e.g. Statistics 100) solely to improve our grade point average. Every pre-anything student has courted a dull professor with an impressive title just to secure a recommendation letter.
Every student has asked the all-consuming question: “What the hell am I going to do with this degree?” Answer 1: Get a job. Answer 2: Go to graduate school.
Perhaps we should to take a break from getting ahead.
The old aristocratic ideal of noblesse oblige implied that the fortunate ought to use their privilege to advance the common good. Carnegie built libraries; the Kennedys and Rockefellers dedicated themselves to government; Bill and Melinda Gates have focused on eradicating vicious diseases.
Most of us will never achieve anything close to what those families managed. But we will still be privileged, and that will still imply a level of responsibility. We need to look beyond what a college education can do for us as individuals and remember that, a long time ago, college was about molding young men (and some women) into responsible citizens and enlightened leaders.
Perhaps it’s time to take our privilege and use it to improve something besides ourselves.
Momin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.