Last summer I went on a couple of dates with a fellow runner who had, decades before, headed directly from high school to low-level employment at a big company. He learned on the job, mastered skills, made money and now spends his time on a range of hobbies.
As a university professor, I generally hang out with folks who have had plenty of schooling. Many of my students worked in the world before they decided to come back for a degree. But this man had zero interest in formal education. That made me wonder about the value of what I do.
In short, is a college degree worth it?
Like many of those who forego university, the guy had an autodidact’s thirst for knowledge. He taught himself skills from baking bread to house restoration. He is more competent at many things than I am (though that’s a low bar).
But he could not write a simple sentence. His emails and texts were so riddled with errors the messages were obscure. When he expressed himself in conversation, he said things that made no sense. Instead of deepening thoughts, he simply repeated himself.
He’d fallen for a number of trendy fads backed up by pseudo-science in poorly written audiobooks. When he talked about what he’d learned, I saw that he imbibed information with a wholly uncritical eye. He couldn’t assess the credentials of authors or unmask bias. He didn’t know how to weigh sources.
I asked myself if college would have been useful for him.
He seemed to have done just fine without a degree, at least financially. But when you learn on a job, you are a fed a party line. You must fall in or be left behind. If you start challenging the way things are done, you risk jeopardizing your future.
College is the opposite of that. You’re taught to question, to come up with your own ideas and bolster them with evidence. You learn that everything — from history monographs to organic chemistry texts — is undergirded by an argument, either explicit or implicit. You are taught to ferret out foundations and test if they’re solid.
What I found lacking in this man, and in others who haven’t had the privilege of formal education (and, in truth, plenty who have) was that he didn’t know how to think critically, hadn’t read broadly and couldn’t write a sentence to save his life.
Once someone experiences a degree of success, they’re often reluctant to think about what they might still be missing. This guy was unaware of how much he didn’t know.
In today’s economy, a degree in creative writing, history, classical philology, art or philosophy can seem luxuriously frivolous, and, to some students and their worried parents, like a space-holder in the unemployment line.
Of course there’s no guarantee that having a degree means that you’ve actually learned anything. Sometimes my worst students are the “good kids” who have learned to do everything they think the teacher wants in ways that show no real intellectual engagement. They’ve marched along like little soldiers, fighting for grades and never stopping to think.
On the other hand, my best students are often military vets who get out of the service with a work ethic that astounds me, show a rare ability to receive constructive criticism and often have a reflexive need to challenge received wisdom. They’re no longer company men and women; they cherish the opportunity to express their views. It is a pleasure to have them in class, questioning me and everything we read.
The man I briefly dated and I were never going to be a good match. While I appreciated his enthusiasm, talking to him was like being around a teenager and brought out in me an unattractive condescension. Teens tend to be passionate. And often dead wrong. Their worlds can be small and narcissistically confined. It’s fun to poke them, to watch them grapple with different ways of thinking, to witness their intellectual growth.
But in late middle age, brains are less plastic and egos more fragile. A man who never learned to read analytically, write fluently and think critically might be able to make money, but he won’t be a good citizen. He won’t be able to make informed decisions when faced with propaganda and alternative facts. And he’s unlikely to hold anyone’s romantic interest.
But there’s something else you get when you go to a university: Exposure to people unlike you. Eli Saslow’s 2018 book, “Rising Out of Hatred,” shows how a kid named Derek Black started college as the face of young white nationalism — his godfather was David Duke — but on campus his first friend was a Peruvian immigrant. He was invited — and went — to Friday night Shabbat student dinners. He studied history. He changed.
After the 2016 election, Black renounced his former racist beliefs in a New York Times op-ed. No one had tried to indoctrinate him to some kind of “liberal agenda”; he was simply presented with people and ideas he’d never before encountered and had a chance, away from his family, to make up his own mind.
That’s the value of college.
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