Suddenly we are deluged with opinions on the value of a college education. The floodgates have opened, and it seems like every newspaper and journal has some expert or other weighing in on how important it is for the future of the country, how much more it means for lifetime earnings, blah, etc. One Times Op-Ed trotted out Ben Franklin’s definition of true education as “…an inclination join’d with an Ability to serve Mankind, one’s Country, Friends, and Family; which Ability…should indeed be the great Aim and End of all Learning.”
Sounds like a good starting point to me. Not having seen the full quote, I’d venture that the “inclination” represents a personal drive, a curiosity about the laws of the universe that can be “join’d” with one’s sense of duty to others. In any case, I think Ben had it covered, and I’d be more than willing to pledge some of my precious tax dollars to help someone achieve that.
But contrast this with Frank Bruni’s column (2/27/12), where he mocks Rick Santorum’s “lament” about college as based on its threat to the “indoctrination” he practices with his own family. The threat is because college “…does what it’s supposed to do, encouraging young adults to survey a broader field of perspectives, exhorting them to tap into a deeper well of information, inviting them to draw their own conclusions, and allowing them to figure out for themselves what they believe and who they are.”
How’s that again? Survey a broader field of…perspectives?!! Is that what we want? Whatever happened to “to serve Mankind”? Somehow, at least in Bruni’s definition, there is no function to prepare a young person for citizenship and independence. He omits, tellingly, the acquisition of skills that have value in the economy, and which form the basis for a person’s fullest service to society. Instead, he seems to view education as some sort of personal quest to develop a set of standards by which to judge society, but without any obligation to participate oneself.
I’m not suggesting that his definition is part of the government’s current pro-college policy. Just the opposite, in fact. Most of the debate now is concerned with whether a college degree is sufficient to secure a middle-class lifestyle, and to give us an edge in the global marketplace. Bruni’s vision stands out because it is so out of fashion. No, the real struggle will be to devise a national policy that promotes a new function for higher education, one that is cognizant of the enormous changes taking place in our economy. I haven’t heard anything from the administration that shows any awareness of this.