College: The Road to the Ivory Tower?

In a recent New York Times article, “What is College For?”, Gary Gutting argues that the “raison d’être of a college is to nourish a world of intellectual culture.” However, Gutting is concerned that the quality of higher education is diminishing due to low expectations and performances from instructors and students alike. And what is the source of this deterioration? Gutting believes that there is a “basic misunderstanding” for the purpose of college; for higher education to “work” there needs to be deep regard for “intellectual culture as essential to society.” Some critics would disagree by saying that college is there to provide you with tools to be a successful and productive member of society, but Gutting would respond with something sassy, like, “Well, there are cheaper ways of doing that.” He wants us to take the college experience BACK into the classroom. GET OFF THE QUAD, PUT AWAY YOUR FRISBEE, AND GO TO THE LIBRARY. (Those are Gutting’s hypothetical caps not mine!)

Gutting’s article created such a stir in the online community that it prompted him to write a second article, cleverly titled “What is College For (Part 2)” (I’m holding out for a trilogy). For the most part I agree with Gutting’s assertion that college should be a space where intellectualism thrives; however, I cannot say that with too much earnest because it makes me feel dirty and pretentious. Why can’t I fully get on board?

Do you know why I chose Montevallo for my undergraduate degree?  The cobblestone streets (which I later realized was going to be my literal downfall on rainy days) and College Night. I’ve always been a serious (well, sarcastically serious) student and being a part of a great intellectual community was always a part of the plan—that was a given, but what was more exciting was the possibility of discovery—learning to become the best version of yourself. (And when I say “discovery” I do mean it in the Rick Perlstein way—except without the Berkley orgies.) It wasn’t about relishing in freedom or finally being around intellectuals—it was about taking advantage of all opportunities. Educational opportunities. Artistic opportunities. Relationship opportunities. Intellectual opportunities. College gives us opportunity.

The experience inside the classroom is just as important BUT IT IS NOT MORE IMPORTANT than the experience outside the classroom. So, you don’t have to get off the quad, you just have to trick your teacher into having class outside.

With all kidding aside, Gutting was right-on to say that college can’t just be an expensive way to prepare you for your career nor can it be just a $40,000+ party. There needs to be a refocus on what the college experience means, but if college becomes merely a space for people to over-glorify intellectualism (and demand praise for it), then we flirt with a kind of elitism that ignores groups of people who aren’t afforded the opportunity to participate.

We should definitely value intellectualism, but we should avoid teaching people to congratulate themselves too much.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “College: The Road to the Ivory Tower?

  1. So the question becomes, “how do we transform college from being something more than just a $100,000 or more apprenticeship to a ‘real job’? What about our models of learning needs to change? Is the composition classroom a place to make that change happen, and if so, what would we do differently as people just beginning to write for a college audience?

  2. The problem itself is not necessarily the liberal arts education. Perhaps it is the students. People of my generation have a tendency to assume that they are entitled to something- just because they have graced the earth with there presence. Having said that, it seems that many students expect their degree to get them a job. They expect employers to “blow up” their phones and emails trying to hire them. Obviously, this doesn’t typically happen. Does this make the degree useless? No. Does this make a person overqualified to do not-so-glorious jobs? In some opinions, yes. But, really, who should determine exactly what a degree is to be used for.
    It appears that the liberal arts education is to give people a broad education. Basically, a little bit of everything. Educationally well rounded people can generally be profitable to society.
    The true problem, to me, seems to lie within the fact that many people don’t know how to relate what they are learning in a classroom to “real life.” Yes, you need to take math because one day you might need to balance a checkbook, half a recipe, or help your kid design a model for his/her science project. You need history so you won’t repeat someone else’s mistake. Imagine if you’d never heard an elder (parent, etc.) tell of something stupid s/he did as a teenager and how it negatively impacted his/her life. You might blindly walk into a similar situation. Science, among other things, teaches us the importance of organization, estimation, and discovery. Art can show you how to see from a different perspective. The benefits of a liberal education continue.
    Back to my point, if a student takes ball these classes and fails to use what s/he has learned. That is what makes the extra letters to his/her title useless. So, the person might have a BA in whatever. But, if they can’t manage a checkbook, cook cup noodles, or organize objects or thoughts, the individual likely missed the objective of the liberal arts education- application of information in a variety of fields.

  3. I am in accordance with your view, in that we need to find a good balance between the two. This not only applies to college, but it also applies to many life situations.
    For example, let’s think about eating. Yes, eating. The main point of eating is to supply your body with proper nutrition, but almost every person has his or her certain food that they could nibble on all day. If one were to eat his or her favorite food all day long, then this could ultimately lead to obesity, which has become very common in the United States. Although the food example might be to much more of an extreme, we still need to realize that there needs to be a balance between needs and wants.
    Now let’s get back to the matter at hand. I personally feel that the stuff that I am going to remember in college is not going to be the papers I wrote for classes or the midterms I had to study my butt off to get an A on, but rather it will be the parties and the good times I spend with my fellow classmates outside of the classroom. Even though I enjoy going outside and throwing frisbee on the quad with my fraternity brothers and going to different parties throughout the semester, I have forced myself to understand that it is not going to be too fun to talk about college stories if I never actually graduate.
    In the long run, I feel that the extracurriculars that one decides to take part in should almost be used as a “reward” for doing good in school. Extracurriculars should also motivate the person to excel in the books so they can enjoy their time outside the books thoughout their college experience.

  4. Eric C. Cox

    We are all here to learn, not just about acedemics, but life. We all have to grow up eventually, after we leave the care of our families. Education helps us mature in a well structured enviornment, and to cope with the process we have to fend for ourselves intellectually. That is what I think Gutter may be getting at in the points he makes about school. In a sense, that creates a culture. Once we are naturalized into that society we can then hopefully flourish acedemically. How do we do that? “Get with the program!” people used to say. Then, hopefully, we can learn to function in life better if we function well in college. The intellectural culture is important in the way that it creates its own language and in order to understand it we have to become a part of it. It may be through socializing, having fun, and just by going to class, but I agree, there has to be a balance. If we can’t learn here then how will we able to learn in life? So, I think that the classroom is where it all really begins and the intellectural culture is just a biproduct of that experience. But when we begin to break away from the classroom and delv further into the culture, then we may loose touch with our foundation. Becoming intellectual becomes more important than learning. It may get to point to where we no longer know what we are talking about because we are no longer learning but being intellectual. So what is the difference? If we don’t know then maybe we should go back to class.

  5. Katherine Tucker

    College has never been a perfectly glorified intellectual haven, where the ivy encased gates held a balanced world of academics, intellectual conversation, “extracurricular activities”, and pre carrier experience. Historically and currently, college is molded by the students that attend, the professors that educate, the administrators that organize an ancient system to fit the modern needs, and the parents that watch from home as control is pulled grudgingly from their fingertips. But these characters haven’t changed, they are from repeating, popular play, the dialogue and settings change, but the mechanics and problems of the students are fairly similar to those before them. We aren’t any different from college students during the eighties, facing a recession, late-stage Cold War society where technology was becoming steadily more prevalent in day-to-day life. Students in college today fancy themselves victimized by the world they live in, sabotaged by an older generation, when they should feel worse for students who graduated 8-10 previous with high demand tech degrees, only to find themselves 10 years later, in a recession, with degrees that are completely useless because of that quick growing technology. Intellectual thinking, pre-job experience, and outside of class memories are not going anywhere, and their balance has not been lost, it has only been redirected to fit the current world. (In many ways these aspects work like our idealized governmental system of checks and balances…dreams are nice while they last) They have redirected to act in a way that suits the stressful topic of work or careers post college, because that is currently on the minds of almost everyone in the country, whether they are 40 years post college or never attended. We have molded our college to our world, not always conscientiously, but we have, and in 5 or 10 years, it will look completely different.

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