In an article titled, “Rethinking the Rise of Inequality“, Eduardo Porter of the New York Times writes that college education is about solving the income disparity problem. Porter opens the story with this odd statement: “Many Americans have come to doubt the proposition that college delivers a path to prosperity.” What? Is that what college is about? Making people prosperous? What college has making graduates prosperous as its mission? Why would anyone go to college just to become economically “prosperous”?
Are colleges off the target then? Are they missing their new true calling? The mission of Brown University is “to serve the community, the nation, and the world by discovering, communicating, and preserving knowledge and understanding in a spirit of free inquiry, and by educating and preparing students to discharge the offices of life with usefulness and reputation.” Clemson University states, “Our primary purpose is educating undergraduate and graduate students to think deeply about and engage in the social, scientific, economic, and professional challenges of our times. The foundation of this mission is the generation, preservation, communication, and application of knowledge.” Fort Lewis College (Colorado), says that its mission is to offer “accessible, high quality, baccalaureate liberal arts education to a diverse student population, preparing citizens for the common good in an increasingly complex world.”
Do these colleges, and many others, simply not get it? It seems that these schools are primarily interested in student learning and the formation of good citizens, so when did college reduce to being a means of addressing “income inequality”?
The Times article reports that something is wrong in America because there is growing skepticism in the country that college education is a means to a good life.
In a poll conducted last month by the College Board and National Journal, 46 percent of respondents — including more than half of 18- to 29-year-olds — said a college degree was not needed to be successful. Only 40 percent of Americans think college is a good investment, according to a 2011 poll by the Pew Research Center. On a pure dollars-and-cents basis, the doubters are wrong.
Wrong? Really? Since when is annual income used as a measure of “success”? Are only high-income earners “successful”? So a football player is more successful than a third grade teacher? Have we become so base and utilitarian as a society that we now measure the good life by income? Are we that materialistic? Are we now that narcissistic? Are we that consumeristic? The answer to all of these questions is “Yes.” American society has such an inverted understanding of the good life that college has been reduced to simply a means of upward economic mobility instead of a place where men and women are educated and formed into more virtuous citizens. Our country’s narcissistic materialism has created a neurotic obsession with disparities between the incomes of individuals, which has devalued the learning goals and outcomes of what colleges exist to accomplish. There is a major disconnect here. I wonder if this explains why many parents do not want their children studying the humanities in college.
Besides, who cares if there are disparities between individuals? What really matters is whether or not our children and young adults are being prepared to bring skills to our global marketplace that contribute to the common good, while being formed in the process. It is a fact of life, and one that benefits us all, that disparities in skills will yield disparate incomes in a free society. Maybe it’s time to abandon the distortion that college is a means to “the American Dream” and replace it with an attention to the types of things that colleges say they exist to accomplish in their own mission statements. It seems that historically those are the types of values that produce the leaders and innovators who make the world a better place.