The Value of a College Education

A classical education is defined as one that focuses on the seven liberal arts. According to Andrew Kern over at The Circe Institute, "[c]lassical education is the only hope for democracy. It is the only form of education that can make people fit to rule themselves." While I tend to agree with Mr. Kern, I do think reasonable people can debate whether a classical education is the sole purveyor of self rule. However, according to recent reports our currrent college system may be missing the mark.


A recent New Yorker article by Louis Menand looked at both the purpose of college and the results presented in a new book, Academically Adrift, by, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, whose premise is that American colleges are more about a social experience than learning. I know the gut reaction to the latter is probably a, "Yes, of course. we didn't need a study to tell us that!" But let's not get ahead of ourselves just quite yet.

First, Menand states two possible purposes for college. One, it is essentially a sorting hat for the world of work. An IQ test is not reliable, but if someone makes it through 4 years of college with an acceptable G.P.A. then a potential employer can assume a certain level of proficiency. The second purpose, in his own words, is to
  ...expose[s] future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing. In performing this function, college also socializes. It takes people with disparate backgrounds and beliefs and brings them into line with mainstream norms of reason and taste.
He then goes on to state that one of the problems with our modern college system is that it attempts to do both. As a classicist I support theory number two fairly strongly, though I have to admit to the efficacy of some type of sorting for the purpose of creating a productive society. But can a system that has as a main aim a vocational education truly create a citizenry of creative and independent thinkers? Here is where Arum and Roska come into play.

The book has an ample appendix and is full of research and data- it is not one of those red-meat diatribes against education. There are of course plenty of surveys included that talk about how much less studying goes on now a days, and how more and more college students spend their time on social and entertainment activities. To a certain extent I disregard these. The older generation always feels the younger just isn't up to snuff in one way or another.
But one piece of interesting data that they focus on quite a bit is a test known as the Collegiate Learning Assessment, or C.L.A., which they gave to incoming freshman, sophomores and seniors to judge how much they were improving. The results were less than flattering.

Arum and Roksa say that 45% of the students showed little if any improvement. On the face of it this seems bad. However, you need to dig a bit beneath the surface to find the ray of hope. Menand finds this ray,
The most interesting finding is that students majoring in liberal-arts fields—sciences, social sciences, and arts and humanities—do better on the C.L.A., and show greater improvement, than students majoring in non-liberal-arts fields such as business, education and social work, communications, engineering and computer science, and health. There are a number of explanations. Liberal-arts students are more likely to take courses with substantial amounts of reading and writing; they are more likely to attend selective colleges, and institutional selectivity correlates positively with learning; and they are better prepared academically for college, which makes them more likely to improve. The students who score the lowest and improve the least are the business majors.
We are coming full circle back to the idea that a classical education is the one that best prepares one for life in a democracy. Those students studying the liberal arts, the foundation of any classical system, perform best. Unfortunately liberal arts students make up less than 20% of the population of college students. The far and away leader? Business degree. want to guess who score the lowest?

The point seems to be that while we need vocational training in a society that needs more and more specialized skills in the productive world, we also need a classical or liberal foundation to be more than just a cog in that world. How do we succeed at both?