It’s Homecoming time at good old Southwestern College, which means I get to talk to some of my “old” students. I love these interactions. For one, these alums make me smile inwardly at their “I’m getting old” remarks. More importantly, they remind me of what I’m doing with my life. I’ll come back to this point eventually.
A couple of weeks ago I read an article in the Wichita Eagle that just made me mad (yes, I’m still fuming: see my earlier post), although what irritated me was not the main point of the article. The president of one of the technical colleges in Wichita (which feeds the very large local airplane industry) made the offhand remark that he was the “poster child” for getting a college degree and then not being able to find a job. As if getting a job is what a college degree is about! In higher education, there is not a dumber thing that could be said. Statistics regularly demonstrate that practically any bachelor’s degree will get you your first job – except in some of the technical fields. Colleges are not and never have been about dispensing “knowledge,” if by “knowledge” we mean merely instrumental, technical skill. That sort of knowledge is obsolete before one graduates anyway. The main point of that newspaper article, then, is actually a very good one: if you’re interested in a skill to get you a job, by all means, don’t waste your time and money on college! But don’t slam college on the way out the door.
If you want to be more than a worker bee the rest of your life; if you want to be able to do more than just react viscerally to whatever the latest news cycle throws at you; if you want some joy that takes you far deeper than the fleeting pleasure the stuff you can buy can give you; in other words, if you want to be a whole person, then you’d better either figure out how to read serious, weighty, elegant writings on your own and with a group of friends…or you’d better go to college.
Listening to our college alumni reminds me of what I’m doing. I’m not “dispensing information.” (Why do my new students use that word so much?! What is going on in high school that reduces everything to “information?”) I’m introducing students to a way of life: the way of wisdom. And more importantly, as a Christian leader, I am both modeling discipleship and helping them into that cruciform life. And a big part of discipleship is thinking wisely. You absolutely cannot hurry it. Learning how to reflect, to pray, to ponder, to learn the difference between strong opinion and sheer bigotry; to recognize what is true and beautiful and enduring – that(!) is what college is about. This kind of learning is grounded in relationship. It requires community. And that, too(!) is what college is about.
The fact is (yes, it can be empirically demonstrated) that gaining wisdom is hugely practical. But it’s not very fast.
If you’re a parent, pleeeeze don’t tell your child not to major in something because it’s “not very practical.” If you’re a college student, don’t make the mistake of thinking that you have to major in something in order to get a good job. Figure out who you are! Get a grasp on what is eternally important. Lengthen your vision.
I’ve listened to lots and lots of alumni from our school – people as old as my parents’ generation and as young as the 20-somethings just a fear years out – and I regularly hear a common theme: what really has stuck with them about college and what means so much to them now is not the scintillating lectures that we professors give or the brilliant research papers that they wrote as students. Of course, those things have their place. Nevertheless, as the years go by, what remains of supreme value about college are all the intangibles: the relationships, the conversations, the outside-of-class (even chapel) experiences.
The “will-it-help-me-get-a-good-job?” obsession is vastly over-rated and ultimately counterproductive! Can we imagine this irony? Our grim determination to ensure our future is, once we slow down and look, rather hapless and silly. We’re all going to die. There’d better be much more to life that having that good job. And there is.