'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.

Some rising high school seniors may be ready for more of the same-- assuming what I've said about American high schools now is right or half right. And if so, they need to apply to and eventually install themselves in the kind of college I call the corporate city.

What do you get there in the corporate city? You get more of the same. Everyone is on the make; everyone is trying to succeed. A tremendous amount of networking goes on because people have come to realize that as the old saying runs, it's often not what you know but who you know. Students still study. But in the old high school tradition, you study only as much as you need to study to get your A's. If expedient but slightly shady means of A-getting arise, you may even evaluate them using a risk- reward equation. That is, you balance what can be gained against the pains of getting caught. And even if you don't cheat per se, you're always ready to cut academic corners. Do I really have to read all of King Lear to ace the test? Probably you don't. At a certain point-- tragic inevitability being what it is-- you probably know what's going to happen to the king and to Cordelia, too. When in doubt, turn to the Spark Notes or the cyber equivalent thereof.

Universities that have made themselves into corporate cities are not hard to spot. Most of the students-- and many members of the faculty-- are buzzing from place to place, always feeling a bit self- important, always feeling a bit behind, like that poor rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. The people who represent corporate universities to you-- the tour guides and the rest-- will talk a lot about new computer initiatives, about partnering with business, and about the creation of young leaders. They'll talk about recent grads who have hit the Silicon Valley jackpot. These are near kids who have made pots of money and-- one feels this by implication-- are soon going to spread some around their former school, to which they are extremely grateful. You'll hear the word excellence about a billion times.

Now, even in the middle of corporate universities, you will find people who are not playing the game. These are not necessarily people who don't show up at a boring class, who smoke a lot of weed, who read books that aren't assigned, who play in bands with bizarre names, and who wear T-shirts that are distressingly original. Though sometimes they are. But what truly characterizes people who are living in, or who want to live in, a scholarly enclave?

It's pretty simple, really. They are at school seeking knowledge so as to make the lives of other human beings better. They will not tell you this when you ask them about it in casual conversation. But it is true. They want to be teachers and scientists and soldiers and doctors and legal advocates for the poor. They want to contribute something to curing cancer; they want to make sure the classics of Roman literature don't die; they want to get people excited about the art of Picasso and maybe inspire people to make some (Picasso- inspired) art of their own; they want to be sure that when a foreign nation is inclined to threaten (I mean really threaten) the peace of the United States of America, that nation has to think twice and twice again.

Do these people want some recognition? Do they want to get paid? Yes, in varying degrees they do. There are very few people who are entirely unselfish in this world, and sometimes they don't live too long. But the people I'm talking about often put others first. They have a love for humanity in them, and it is this love that chiefly motivates what they do, even if they don't tell you so every five minutes. They want to make the world better and they are honest with themselves about doing this: They know that any quest that involves status and enrichment is dangerous and that it can take them away from what really matters. They know that the human capacity for self-deception is boundless and they are always on the lookout for the moment when their pride eclipses their love for the world.

How do you find these people, and how do you find the schools where they are plentiful-- what I've called the scholarly enclaves? That is, how do you find them if they are what you are looking for? You visit, you look, and you listen. When people start talking about leadership and incentives (and especially something called "incentivizing") and becoming an academic entrepreneur, you are probably in the wrong place. (Whenever people make fritters of English, I daresay that you're in the wrong place.) When people talk about innovation and "partnering" with big- money institutions, I would advise you to run. If you hear the word excellence more than twice in a sentence, you are hereby empowered to pop the speaker twice (but very gently) in the nose.

The residents of scholarly enclaves are harder to spot than the denizens of the corporate university, and I can't give you a definitive field guide to finding them. But I'll say first that they don't talk about being a leader and being an entrepreneur. They talk about working in a lab or developing a questionnaire for psychological research or writing a novel, or getting people who don't belong in jail out of jail, or defending their country against its enemies. And they are not smiling all the time. They are aware of the enormous gap between what humans aspire to and what remains to be done. They tend to take joy in their work, but they never feel that they have quite gotten it right. The people in the corporate university are forever pleased with themselves. They are always succeeding, getting A's that will soon be converted into dollars.

Where should a young person now go to college? It depends. Does she want more of the good American high school with its hustle and bustle, its strivings for excellence, its fixation on leadership, it's partnering and incentivizing and getting proactive, and succeeding, succeeding, succeeding? Or does she want something else?


This post is adapted from Mark Edmundson's Why Teach?.

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Mark Edmundson teaches English at the University of Virginia.

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