'Where Should I Go to College?'

How to answer that question by asking another question
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Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Where should you go to college--assuming you're a high school student and getting ready for this new phase of your life? Where should you encourage your son or daughter to go--assuming that you're a parent? As a college professor, I get asked the where-to-go question frequently, and I know that all of us teaching in colleges and universities do too. How should one answer? What is the right thing to say to someone deciding on his or her future? For myself, I'm inclined to respond by posing another question.

Are you looking for a corporate city, or are you looking for a scholarly enclave? Neither of these kinds of schools exists in its pure form. To the scholarly enclave, even the most ideal, there will always be a practical, businessy dimension. Somebody's got to keep the books and pay the bills. And even in the most corporate of colleges, there will be islands of relative scholarly idealism.

Many, if not most, American high school students have already had a taste of the corporate city. These are students and parents who are emerging from the mouth of that great American dragon called the "good high school." I won't hide my prejudices: I have a lot of qualms about the good American high school. Most good high schools now look to me like credential factories. They are production centers that kids check in to every day. The motivated, success- oriented students set to work from the moment of arrival, producing something, manufacturing something. And what they produce are credentials. High schools now are credential factories in overdrive.

It doesn't mean that students don't have to work to get those credentials: Of course they do. It takes lots of effort, planning, and organization-- and it takes some smarts-- to get what students, the workers in the high school factory, are out to get. Students feel that they need to get A's-- they need to excel in their courses. They also feel they need to stimulate the goodwill of their teachers and their guidance counselors: Those recommendations are crucial. Students in high school now also need to rack up lots of extracurriculars: They need to do some community service; they need to be president (or, maybe better, treasurer) of a club or two; it's good as well if they can play at least one varsity sport, or, if they are prone to stumbling over their own feet (as I was in high school), they can at least manage a team or keep the uniforms clean.

High school now is about being an all-arounder. You've got to be good at your classes, but you've also got to shine as a citizen and a general hand- waving, high- enthusiasm participant. To do this, you've often got to make yourself into a superb time manager. You give each activity the amount of time and effort required so that you can reach the so- called standard of excellence. You give it that much, but you give it no more. Do I really need to read the whole book to get an A in English, the student asks herself? Probably she doesn't. Do I need a tutor and extra time to score a top grade in math? Perhaps yes. If so, the money is well spent and so is the time. Will it look better to put in two hours a week volunteering at the hospital or four at the soup kitchen? Does the guidance counselor say that both will look about the same to the college admissions board? Then better to do the hospital: You'll need those extra two hours for prom committee.

High school students need to produce A's. High school students need to produce credentials. No A's, no first- tier college (probably). No credentials, no grandly embossed letters of acceptance-- or at least no chirpy e-mail notifications of entrance into the class of 2017.

You'll discern here that I'm not entirely approving of the good American high school and its MO-- but on some level I think that I understand what's up. Even if the current mode of high school education-- for the good student at the good high school-- doesn't especially appeal to a student, what is she supposed to do about it? A 15- year- old standing up at a school meeting and saying that she's mad as heck about being slapped on an assembly line, or that she's mad at her parents for slapping here there, or that she's mad at herself-- that's not going to do very much. She's going to feel alone and lonely and sad, and anyway she may not even be able to find the words to express her feelings. She probably hasn't read about or even heard the name Mario Savio, who made a speech at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1964. I understand that quite often high school history courses now don't take you all the way up through the period of the Vietnam War, but stop at the end of World War II because "we've run out of time."

Mario Savio stood up at Sproul Plaza at Berkeley and said that as a college student, as a Berkeley student, he too often felt like a piece of raw material that was getting processed by his university and by his society. He believed that many of his contemporaries felt the same way. And then he talked back to that condition. He said, "But we're a bunch of raw materials that don't mean to be-- have any process upon us. Don't mean to be made into any product! Don't mean--Don't mean to end up being bought by some clients of the university, be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We're human beings!" We're not products, Mario Savio says: We're human beings. He says it in a broken- up Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie sort of way, but he says it. Probably a young guy or girl going to high school now hasn't heard of Mario Savio or listened to his famous lines from Sproul Plaza.

They are lines to which young people will respond differently. Some may say: I love high school. I love the hustle and bustle and the classes and the clubs and the staying up late and the social life and the prom and the messing with Facebook. I love striving for success. I like the game and I like the rewards of the game, and so-- give me some more.

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Mark Edmundson teaches English at the University of Virginia.

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