College isn’t the best option for everyone

Andrew White Cleary, Copy Editor

Allow me to introduce three people. Their names will be given later; for now they will simply be referred to as Person A, Person B and Person C.

Person A did poorly in school and spent much of his time making personal contraptions of interest. Person B was lackluster in the three R’s (reading, writing and arithmetic), and may have failed to fully learn the alphabet while in school. Person C regularly skipped school to watch double-feature films, and graduated with a D+ average. Do these individuals sound like ne’er-do-wells and failures? Are they people who never succeeded, or who will likely never produce anything great?

They are actually Isaac Newton, Pablo Picasso and Stanley Kubrick, respectively. All three are often cited as the greatest figures in their respective fields. Such facts may seem strange in our time. College has come to be discussed constantly in high schools and in students’ households. Those without college degrees may be referred to, and thought of, as uneducated. They are locked out of numerous jobs instantly. Yet when one researches the course of academia over the past generation or so, and listens to the thoughts of numerous intellectuals on the matter, it increasingly appears that the cultural esteem for, and financial costs of, a college education– particularly in the humanities, or the social sciences besides economics– are now far greater than its ultimate intellectual gifts.

Concerns have been voiced in recent years about the extent of academia’s liberal bias, and its effects on the treatment of differing views on campuses. “What’s happening now,” according to social psychologist and professor Jonathan Haidt, “is – and it’s only some students in a few departments – but a bad kind [of identity politics].” All the major social problems of our time, according to him, are reduced to the framework of an oppressive group and an oppressed group, with moral merit centering on the idea that privilege makes one bad and victimhood makes one good. Because of this approach, Haidt goes so far as to argue, “I think we’re actually making students less wise.”

Several protests of planned campus speaking events have in recent years permeated into mainstream culture and garnered controversy. These include a crowd of student feminists at the University of Toronto blocking the speaking event of a men’s rights advocate, and students at Brown University fleeing a debate concerning whether or not the United States qualifies as a rape culture, choosing instead to retreat into a safe space with cookies, calming music, coloring books and a video of frolicking puppies.

The unmistakably honorable and well-intentioned nature of ideas such as multiculturalism and feminism does not negate the possibility that even they, some of the most benign of dogmas, may become destructive when believed in with too much ardor. Students across the country aim to be accepted into the most prestigious universities, often holding the assumption that they are our foremost centers of intellectual inquiry and debate. But the students in these and many other stories are not broad-minded and freethinking.

What is education if nobody wishes to listen to ideas other than those which they already have? One should think again about the cultural esteem for college. A credentialist society, we consistently view diplomas and degrees as the main markers of ability, and expect the most intelligent people to strive the most for them. College admissions boards are wont to classify individuals largely by letters on report cards and numerical statistics.

But let’s get down to the brass tacks.

The mastermind behind Microsoft, the father of classical mechanics and the writer of “The Sound and the Fury” all dropped out. The painter of “Guernica,” the auteur behind “Persona,” the inventor of the telephone, the director of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the scientist who proposed special relativity and the artist responsible for the Sistine Chapel ceiling were all bored with what conventional education had to offer; most of them had profound passions in their fields from the very start, and the prospect of the first 20 years of their lives being spent in a traditional educational model did not appeal to them. One cannot blame them. These were individuals who could, owing to their intellects, almost certainly learn at far faster paces on their own, thus having perhaps years’ worth of additional time in their lives to move the human race forward in the ways that they ultimately did. The shortcomings of our elite universities today only make it all the truer that our social order as we know it– our very way of life, and of evaluating others, in the United States– is marred by a significant fallacy that will prove to keep even many better-off aspects of our society in a sort of flux.

We seem to be looking for great minds while knowing little about great minds. There are good reasons one would consider the idea of spending four years at a modern university to fall short, way short, when compared with other post-high school endeavors. That “formal education” and “education” have come largely to be conflated in our society is unfortunate, for, judging from the input of thinkers like Paglia, Haidt and many others, the former is now disappointing in intellectual returns. For these and many other reasons, alternative education in all its forms cannot become devalued, and it must forever be understood that in pedagogy one size does not fit all.