College should be something that some kids choose out of personal preference. When I was at Rutgers, I lived in Demarest Hall, which for decades was a quirky dormitory, each hallway dedicated to the study and celebration of special interest subjects such as German and the arts of the scene. It has a particularly progressive social atmosphere. Junot Díaz staged much of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Brief and Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao,” in Demarest shortly after I arrived and captures the location perfectly. It was an entire building where almost everyone actively wanted to do that college thing.
But it was hard not to see that this was not the case for many other middle schoolers at that time. Even as a young student, it was hard not to notice how many of my contemporaries were just marking time until they “got that piece of paper,” as some would say. Yes, they were smart and capable. But they were largely jumping through hoops: it seemed like they might have been better off just jumping in and doing what they wanted to do, without four years of costly preparation tied only diagonally to what they were going to spend their lives doing. One in two students seemed to be majoring in economics, not because they were particularly interested in the Laffer Curve, but because they saw it as a major that would help them “get a good job,” as many do. would say. Did society need to submit all these students to this exercise?
I don’t mean that kids like that lacked curiosity or weren’t “college material” as the saying goes. The question was what was the purpose of even the mission of the college, as it was then constituted. Especially these days, if you want to know almost any subject, you don’t need a college professor to teach it to you. At least not live, in person and under a rigid credentialing requirement: College-level education is more readily available today than ever before thanks to online sources. Companies like The Great Courses (which hosts some of my conferences) are ubiquitous. There are countless podcasts on countless topics available at the push of a button, whereas 40 years ago when I was an undergrad, books, periodicals, and maybe PBS or NPR were probably most of your options. It’s a new world out there.
True classroom instruction, with its required attendance and faculty availability for questions, has its benefits, as does the experience of spending four years interacting with a wide range of people. But the question is whether these benefits are so great that they justify continuing to view college, including the expenses and debts involved, as a default American experience. There’s no sacrosanct reason to keep students in high school until 12th grade, let alone dedicate an extra eight semesters of formal education as something we quietly pity people for without.
We think four years of high school and four years of college are normal, because that’s what we know. But we could be a society of solidly educated people if we improve and strengthen public education while reclassifying college education as one choice among many. Call it a pipe dream – I realize it wouldn’t happen overnight. But I suspect many would see Botstein’s idea as valid if we rewind the tape and start over. This kind of assumption is invaluable in assessing where we are and where we would like to go.
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John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the “Lexicon Valley” podcast and is the most recent author of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”