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.