But even I know there are bad reasons to attend a university.
Here is a good one: You’re much less likely to die young.
Note these findings from a 2017 study that tracks changing mortality rates amongst non-college educated white Americans especially. Pay attention to the top lines (labeled “high school or less.”)
CORRELATION AND CAUSATION
When reading these studies, it’s important to remember that correlation isn’t causation. It’s not necessarily the lack of a degree that is contributing to a frightening rise in early deaths in certain demographics.
There are many complex factors. But I suspect part of the problem is an increasing deficit of hope in certain parts of the country. And this is being expressed in everything from suicide, to opioid addiction, to a growth in scapegoating ideologies like white nationalism and white supremacy.
Note the stunning comparison between America and other nations:
Some good news in the study is that mortality rates (for certain age groups) have declined amongst non whites. The bad news is that the closing gap between racial groups has come more by a precipitice decline amongst non-college educated whites than by improvements elsewhere.
A DEFICIT OF HOPE
The cause, according to the study, is more complicated than a simple look at income.
In particular, the income profiles for blacks and Hispanics, whose mortality has fallen, are no better than those for whites. Nor is there any evidence in the European data that mortality trends match income trends…
The study suggests that the cause of this decline has to do with
“cumulative disadvantage[s] … triggered by progressively worsening labor market opportunities at the time of entry for whites with low levels of education.”
In other words, factories and mines closed; and it was no longer possible to get a good job without education (see also my treatment of this theme in J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy).
The way of life within the rust belt changed, and frustration over a world that no longer exists fueled a rise in opioid addiction, race-based populism, and scapegoating. (Picture the late Weimar Republic but with fentanyl in place of Zyklon B.)
The solution to all this is far more complex than simply telling young Americans to “go to college.”
But as I head back to faculty meetings today and to classes next week, it’s worth remembering that the completion of a college education is more than just a privilege or a foregone conclusion: For some of my students, it’s part of the difference between life and death.
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In John’s Gospel, it’s interesting that the first title Mary gives the risen Christ, upon recognizing him on Easter morning, is that of “Teacher.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”) (John 20.16).
To be honest, other titles might seem more exalted.
How about “Lord,” or “Son of God,” or “President and CEO of all Creation”™?
No. She calls him “Teacher.”
I’ve been pondering the value of that title recently as my daughter Lucy has been home from school due to the walkout over Oklahoma public education funding.
Lucy adores the teachers she has had so far (Mrs. Daniels for kindergarten, and Mrs. Hymel for first grade, along with others).
Like me at that age, she was so catatonically shy that she hardly spoke or made eye-contact for the first months of the semester.
But despite the herculean task of wrangling over twenty tiny-but-tornadic students, her public educators have taken a personal interest in her; they have loved her; and they have helped her to grow in confidence rather than just in “standardized test scores.”
So when Lucy mentions “Mrs. Daniels” and “Mrs. Hymel” her voice betrays a kind reverential awe that’s usually reserved (in our culture at least) for celebrities and star athletes.
(Though she doesn’t know that word, that I made up.)
A SACRED CALLING
Perhaps that’s one reason why Jesus was called teacher–and not just as “King of kings” or “Great Physician.”
Because teachers have enormous power.
Just before writing this, I stumbled upon a post by New York Times Best-selling Author, Jon Acuff.
I became a writer because in the third grade my teacher, Mrs. Harris, laminated some of my poetry and told me I was a good writer.
Teachers, the challenging thing about education is that you often don’t get to see the results. They don’t happen instantly but years and years later. Just know that you’re not teaching kids, you’re launching adults. And I for one am very grateful.
How many of us could tell similar stories? (without the NYT bestseller part…)
In the years to come, I hope we (in my home state especially) will come to see the honored nature of this title—and then put our money where our mouths are.
“Second Worst in the nation” is not something to be proud of when it comes to teacher pay and education funding.
In light of that, I’m grateful for the recent move to finally (though begrudgingly) bump funding in a positive direction—even though there remains much more to do.
And like many, I’ve come to see my own complicity within the crisis.
To be blunt, I’ve been part of the problem. Because like lots of folks, I haven’t paid much attention to the small, local races that actually have a major impact on our state. And I intend to change that.
So to Mrs. Daniels and Hymel—thank-you, and I’m sorry.
May you and thousands like you know how special it is to share a title borne by Christ: Rabboni.
“[The] grade-point average is one of the more destructive elements in American education.”
So says David Brooks in a recent Op-Ed for the New York Times (here).
In his view:
“Success is about being passionately good at one or two things, but students who want to get close to that 4.0 have to be prudentially balanced about every subject. In life we want independent thinking and risk-taking, but the GPA system encourages students to be deferential and risk averse, giving their teachers what they want.”
For the record, I like Brooks. Yet my question now is whether he’s right in this particular contention. As a teacher, I’ve thought about the matter a bit, and I’ve even had my own frustrations with the American elevation of broad-spectrum academic standards (like GPA).
Here’s a personal example:
ON MATH AND HERESY
After grad school, I wanted to do a PhD in theology. Yet in America, a key part of the application process is one’s GRE score. The GRE is something like the ACT on steroids, and it includes a written composition portion along with verbal and quantitative elements (aka “math”).
Sadly, I am terrible at math. Actually, I don’t “math,” which is one reason I specialized in trinitarian theology. In the Trinity, One = Three and Three = One. And if you object to that with “math,” you’re a heretic.
The GRE is a heretic (*sarcasm).
So while I achieved the highest possible mark on my written composition, my overall score was torpedoed by important theological skills like Long Division. I was not accepted.
Then I applied to a great school in the UK (Manchester). Oddly, their entrance requirements had to do with (wait for it…) theology.
I got in, and finished ahead of schedule.
This brings me back to Brooks’ claim:
“Success is about being passionately good at one or two things, [not] prudentially balanced about every subject.”
But here’s a complicating factor.
At the same time that Brooks is critiquing the kind of broad-spectrum acumen that the GPA rewards, others are decrying the technical specialization that is rapidly replacing a liberal arts education.
The argument here is that while the migration to specialized STEM majors (Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math) may lead to a bigger paycheck initially, it can also fail to form the person broadly. And in some cases (not all), this results in highly specialized morons.
To back this up, many recent articles have highlighted the benefits of a broad-spectrum liberal arts education, even for those who eventually go into fields like business, science, and technology.
One of these articles comes from a Wheaton College grad, Alex Soholt. As he argues (here), broad training in the liberal arts has major benefits over exclusive specialization. Here are a few:
Liberal (i.e. “broad”) education teaches students how to think and learn for a lifetime. It does so by emphasizing a variety of skills, especially critical thinking and analysis that go far beyond the execution of a particular task.
Liberal education helps studentsto see things whole. As Soholt notes, the industries of the world are connected, like systems in a human body. If one fails, others are affected. Think, for instance, about the housing crisis of 2008, and the ensuing domino effect.
Liberal educationenhances wisdom and faith. This is crucial. Education is meant to form the person, not just enable the acquisition of a paycheck. Think again of the housing crisis, and ponder what even the barest amount of morality and wisdom from the big banks would have done to change things. Just because something is lucrative and legal, that doesn’t mean it’s wise.
Liberal educationcontributes to joy. This last point is among the most important, but I’d like to address it through another personal example/rant.
WHY SHAKESPEARE DIDN’T MAKE: A RANT
For this semester, I was looking forward to auditing our college Shakespeare class. I have always wanted to do this, and the course only happens every couple years. (see here for why I decided to start doing this.) I talked with the professor, and got permission.
Then a problem emerged. Shakespeare didn’t “make.” In essence, no one else signed up to take it. More precisely, out of an undergraduate population of around six hundred students, two people enrolled in Shakespeare. Two!!!
“How is that possible!?” I asked. How is it that in a liberal arts university, only two people out of six hundred signed up to study the single most important writer in the English language? How can that be!?
I’ll tell you how. Or rather, I’ll tell you one reason. In large measure, we have forgotten that education is not just about checking off requirements so that you can graduate. It’s not just about staying (barely) eligible so that you can play your sport. Nor is it merely about maximizing your “earning potential.” Education is also about maximizing JOY. And I don’t care what your major is, learning to appreciate great literature, great art, and great thinkers will make YOU better, no matter what field you settle in.
Increasingly, this reality is being noticed even in business and technology sectors, which have begun hiring more English and humanities majors in search of people who can write well, think broadly, and draw upon a number of disciplines (see here).
A POSSIBLE COMPROMISE
So which is it?
Should we stress being “passionately good at one or two things” (Brooks)—and perhaps deemphasize the GPA? Or should we encourage students to study broadly as in a true liberal arts environment?
The answer is “Yes.”
At some point, one must drill deeply into an area of specialization. This is good. And at this stage, a poor score in an unrelated field (in my case, math) should not impede one as much as it sometimes does in the American model. Brooks is right about this. And too much focus on the GPA is a problem.
Yet at the same time, we must encourage undergraduate students especially to use electives to dabble widely, especially in the liberal arts. This way, they are more likely to be shaped as whole people and not just as narrowly knowledgeable one-trick ponies.
This need not mean abolishing the GPA, but it does mean changing how we use it.
Along these lines, one option might be to remove the threat of a GPA-crushing score in electives (like Shakespeare) so that non-specialists might be more apt to take such courses. A further step would be to ensure that students actually have said electives—as some majors, even in liberal arts environments, leave no room for them.
Finally, both students and parents must change the way they think about education in general. We must get beyond the soulless notion that the only classes that matter are those that teach me to do the immediate skill that I desire to do upon graduation.
Let’s be honest, that skill may not even exist fifteen years from now, but the ability to analyze, write, speak, think, and create is timeless.
That’s my two cents.
Now, what did I leave out?
And what do you think of Brooks’ claim?
 Of course, it is equally possible that I was denied for completely different and reasons. But this likelihood is more damaging to my self-esteem. Better to blame math.
After finally completing my PhD, I recently made the strange decision to do something that I thought I’d never do again–go back to “school.”
In January, I began auditing a college course in British Literature (Brit Lit. 2), with Dr. Sarah Petrovic. And I’ve enjoyed it immensely.
When I told this to a fellow professor, he looked at me the way my dog does when I ask her if she’s seen my car keys.
“Huh?” [head cocked to the side]
And, to be honest, I get that. It’s unusual to take classes for no credit, and it’s even more unusual for a prof. to take an undergraduate course.
Still, the experience does allow me to make a couple points that are, I think, important.
Against Educational Prostitution
If education is viewed merely as something we must endure—perhaps with gritted teeth—in order to (one day) receive a paycheck, that’s closer to prostitution than a quest for wisdom.
It’s cheapened, no matter what the sticker price.
As Dennis Hayes argues, true learning need not be “for” anything:
If all the problems of economic and social life were solved and people did not even have to work, we would still seek knowledge. This is encapsulated in Socrates’ vision of eternal life as an endless series of conversations and debates with the greatest thinkers.
I would tweak this only slightly.
For Christians, seeking after the Beautiful, the True, and the Good is worship, whether through the mysteries of quantum mechanics, or the well worn sonnet psalms of Gerard Manley Hopkins (thanks Brit. Lit. 2!):
Glory be to God for dappled things –
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
As the Apostle Paul states: “all things are yours” (1 Cor. 3.21).
Which brings me to the next point:
For Lifelong Learning
There are lots of practical ways to be a lifelong learner. And these need not involve quitting your job to become a Portland barista with three masters’ degrees and a student loan debt greater than the GDP of Denmark.
Here are a few:
Audit a Class
While my schedule permits this more easily than yours might, anyone can do it. Auditing a class—that is, attending the course, but not taking it for credit—costs next to nothing. You don’t have to worry about getting a good grade, and you get to learn from an expert in a particular field. My advice would be to ask around about great teachers at a university near you, peruse the course catalogue, and then contact the registrar for info. It’s easy and inexpensive.
Podcast like a Pro
I have a ten-minute drive to work each morning. That’s short. Yet even in brief spans like that (going home for lunch, back and forth from the gym), I can listen to a lot of podcasts. The key is to find the ones that stretch you. Some of my favorites are Radiolab and The Moth from NPR, Ask Science Mike for my deficient grasp of science, and preachers like Tim Keller and Matt Chandler. The podcast app on the iPhone (or Android) makes it easy. (Caveat: in a future post I’d like to talk about why I think it’s helpful to listen to and podcast people with whom you disagree. But not here.)
Develop a Strategic Reading Plan
I could have simply bought the books for Brit. Lit. 2 and read them. But I wouldn’t have. I needed the accountability. A book club provides something similar. Still, if that’s not an option, then an strategic reading plan, incorporating different genres, is a great (though obvious) alternative. (Incidentally, if you’re a preacher, I highly recommend Cornelius Plantinga’s Reading for Preachingfor some great insights on how to do this. While not all great readers are great preachers, all—and I mean all—great preachers are great readers.)
Use Youtube (Selectively)
I have a friend with serious dyslexia, and this makes reading difficult. Still, he’s a lifelong learner, and he has found some ways around the difficulty. For him, Youtube resources like School of Life, TED talks, and the hilarious Crash Course series with John Green, offer alternatives to heavy reading. No, it’s not the same. And yes, there is a lot of nonsense in the Internet wasteland, but that’s true of bookstores and universities as well.
In the end, my own decision to “go back to school”—without the hefty price tag—has been time well spent.
It has given me no opportunity for a pay raise, no credits toward a further degree, and no fast track toward career advancement.
And that’s okay. Because while such things aren’t bad, I think John Dewey was right to say that:
Education … is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.
NB: If you do not think that educating for wisdom is a dire need within our culture, please read my prior post on the rise of Donald Trump.