One of the great unanswered questions of our time:
What is college for?
Students, being that they don't have years of experience thinking deeply about what their education actually does for them, usually don't have the opportunity to answer this with hindsight. Educators, being that they do have those supposed years of experience, never answer it clearly or anywhere near satisfactorily. For that, education is hard. What education, at the end of the day, does for one person it may not do for another. I remember an instance, early in my Master's program of Higher Education, having a particularly astute teacher facilitate this exercise:
He asked us if we enjoyed college. Most everyone did, enthusiastically so. He asked us what part of college was the best overall. Most everyone answered the relationships or community or activities. Not one person in memory answered academics. Lastly, he asked us whether or not everyone should go to college. Unanimously, no one said college was for everyone. I hope you notice the disconnect here.
College is good, especially for the development of lasting relationships. But not everyone should go to college. I ruminate on this experience constantly. Especially since $85,000+ is a lot to pay for developing relationships (which, interestingly enough, can also be done for free, just like learning).
My dream for higher education, probably never to be realized, is that it would be used for two things:
1) A student who knows (with job prospects already found) what general field they want/need to study for their specific career and goes after that training full force.
2) A student who has been doing their calling for some time and wants further advanced and up-to-date training in that field.
One caveat and two important things to note. Caveat: calling does not equal occupation. Two things: (1) college as it is today isn't necessary for either of these two things and (2) 'liberal arts' education isn't necessarily part of the curriculum.
The first thing noted has to do with the fact that all formal education isn't necessarily about learning, but about certification. That is what a degree is: a publicly attested certification of some level of skill, whether learned or BSed. The second thing noted may seem a little strange. I am a believer in a well-rounded, liberal (freedom-giving) education. If careerism is all that we train/educate for, then we are denying the essential humanness of ourselves and our students.
The reason that higher education does not necessarily need a 'liberal arts' component is two-fold. (1) Whether teachers admit it or not, all learning, even the technical stuff is interdisciplinary. If your teachers don't teach their discipline listening to other fields such as the hard sciences, the social sciences, the humanities, and business, they have failed you as teachers. Switch to different professors or different schools. (2) If your education hasn't prepared you for living as a free human being by the time you are 18, then a liberal arts education is going to do very little for you. Needless to say, a bulk of responsibility is on the student to use their education, not just believe everything teacher says (I did mention that 'liberal' education is about freedom, didn't I?)
Part of being a free human being, from my point of view, is having a purpose. I've seen too many students coming into and leaving college with no real sense of what they are about, and I don't mean just career-wise. Many of them have no real connection to a place or a tradition or a home. Without that, no sense of calling, real yes-it-includes-occupation-but-is-so-much-more-than-that, Steve Garberian calling can happen. It is ridiculous for parents and students to spend so much money and time on certification when the student doesn't have a clear sense of calling. It is ridiculous to assume that you will find your calling in the strict bubble of the educational system (how many people outside of your age group do you have real, genuine interaction with each week?), separated from family, home, work, and place?
Part of this train of thought is brought on by a conversation I had earlier today with a friend who went to school with me. We both, for all intents and purposes, are outside of academe. Neither of us totally, but most of our lives is not spent as teachers, but as independent business people and regular folks. Neither of us regret our studies, but neither of us are in the fields in which we spent so much labor, sweat, time, and money. With a little foresight, and maybe some guidance from the informal teachers in our lives who really know us, could have saved us much time and energy. An internship here, a book to read there, a heart-to-heart about what is really important in life. Someone to tell us that being in college is much more about status than education (if you don't believe that, it is because the fact is taken for granted in middle class America).
Honestly, I want to go back to college now. Not because I need to, but because with my callings in urban renewal, business, the interdisciplinary work of coffee (surprisingly so), I have much to learn. However, I'll be doing most of that learning through independent reading and by having conversations with people who are living their lives, who are passionate about what they are doing, whether that is educating, laboring, running a business, raising a family, caring for those in need, or just relaxing a bit by biking the country.
In the end, I think that our educational system is fundamentally flawed. Why is it that we keep students in school for more and more years to learn less and less? Longer hours, more homework, longer school years haven't produced the social salvation that has been promised for decades. It is time that we rethink how and why we do schooling and why it is so disconnected from learning.