What Is College For?

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We live in an era of multifunctional devices. Computers with phones and cameras. Watches that measure your step count. As a wag once put it, if you can nail together two things that have never been nailed together before, you can sell it to somebody.

So it’s no surprise that colleges are also, increasingly, multifunctional devices. They act as forces for economic mobility for individuals, and workforce development for regions. They act as extensions of the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, and they provide minor-league franchises for the NFL and NBA. They allow teenagers to become adults, and provide credentialing and screening for various professions. They cement the privilege of the privileged, they give voice and opportunity to those without.

A few years ago, Louis Menand wrote an article for the New Yorker about the confused roles of college, and the confusion caused for those who participate in the enterprise. And it influenced my thinking quite a lot, at least in part because it was a good premise left so incomplete. To borrow the subtitle of his article, why do we have college? He offers two reasons.

  • It sorts by talent. Millions of kids graduate from high school each year; which ones are academically best? The selective schools will tell you that by whom they admit. The simple fact of getting into and getting out of Yale or Stanford is more important than what you did there. We pretend that the precision of the GPA matters, but really, there are only three categories of college performance: drop-out, unremarkable, and remarkable. So if you multiply the selectivity of your school by which of those three categories you achieved, it tells the rest of us everything we think we need to know about you on your first resume, and allows HR departments and grad-school admissions officers to quickly cull the herd.
  • It is an enculturation device. It provides training in “the things that people like us should know,” an army of missionaries bringing the unwashed and half-finished into civilization. It offers familiarity with western civilization’s greatest hits, from Plato to Plath.

But Menand misses more than he hits. Here are some others.

  • It takes kids away from their families. One of the functions of education has always been to surround kids with adults who aren’t their parents, and thus to give them alternate models of adulthood.
  • It provides challenges to independence. High school is about compliance within complexity, and came to the fore during the great wave of industrialization, when factories needed men who could fit unquestioningly into whirling, dangerous mechanical processes. College is about choosing what to do and figuring out how to do it, managing your time and finding your own resources, failing and recovering along the way. By doing this, it prepares its students for more complex and fluid professional work.
  • It provides networks. One of the sorting mechanisms of college selectivity is to place kids into groups of kids with similar prospects in life, so that by the time they’re thirty, they have a huge contact file of friends they can call on for business and collegiality. They offer suitable dating and marriage pools, prepare their graduates for the appropriate country clubs and chambers of commerce.
  • It offers productive unemployment. Like the depression-era WPA and CCC and the contemporary armed services, colleges are a massive social support for people not prepared to enter the workforce. Just as child-labor laws were enacted at least in part to protect adult employment prospects, colleges take twenty million people out of the population defined in employment statistics, and holds them out of the way for a little longer while the grown-ups make a living. It reduces employment competition even as it helps those not yet competitive to feel okay about it, to have a named role within the system.
  • It challenges cultural stability. College is where burgeoning adults are trained to question, where students move from the comfort of knowing to the thrilling confusion of not-knowing. It introduces students to complex social and cultural problems, helps them move from narrow to broader interests, helps them see that they have a role in issues that are “not their business.” We think that higher ed is about gaining knowledge, but it’s also about choosing a world of dissatisfaction with the things we think we know, and bringing that aspiration for more into all of our stable systems.
  • It offers an on-ramp to adult responsibilities. It is a halfway house to first apartments, responsible drinking, responsible sex, productive time management. College allows kids to screw up in ways their parents never would, even as it stands by and helps to clean up the mess and reinforce the life lessons that come from mistakes.

So why does this list matter? It matters because how we define college has everything to do with how we define the role of the faculty. If we focus only on the specific content delivered within the specific three-credit box of a course (a model not so different than high school, after all), then all we need is a low-paid temporary worker who’s qualified to offer that box of goods. But if we see college as something more systemic, as an intervention into individual lives and collective culture, then we’d shift more toward a stable, permanent body of faculty members who know and embrace those larger roles over the duration of a student’s experience, a reliable family of non-family who recognize that their own value is far more than simply the things they know.