Part VIII, Chapter 2
The Promise of the College
There is one topic to which I can address myself that should be relevant to your lives and about which I have a very modest amount of specialized, personal knowledge. Most (perhaps all) of you are going on to college. What can you reasonably expect from your college experience? It is to this question that I intend to speak.Let me put it another way: Led on in part by the promises made by the colleges (as they have sought to lure you to their campuses), you must now have various expectations of the experiences ahead of you. Which of these expectations have some chance of being realized? Which of the promises of the college is it realistic to expect it to keep?As my friend and colleague, George Stigler, professor of economics at the University of Chicago and long-time trustee of Carleton College, once put it: “The typical college catalogue would never stop Diogenes in his search for an honest man.”It is with no great pride and with an eye cocked for Ralph Nader that I confess to you that colleges promise prospective students (and their parents) many things, some of them obviously absurd, some of them partly attainable, some of them almost wholly attainable. Let’s try to sort them out.I’ll begin with an easy one. Come to College A and life will be a ball and a ring-a-ding-ding, four years of fun and frolic. In the first place, if it really can deliver on this promise, College A isn’t a college at all, but a kind of winter camp for aging teenagers. In the second place, the years from seventeen to twenty-two are destined by the nature of the human animal to be marked by fits of anxiety and concern, and by some very painful experiences.Most of the problems will be highly personal and of a nature such that the college can be of almost no help. The love-hate relationship of the late-teens teenager and his or her parents; the sometimes embarrassing, but inevitable ending of old friendship patterns (including many that tonight you swear are fixed forever); and of course the now suddenly
serious set of questions and dilemmas that arise out of the fact that there are two sexes and that it takes two to tango. Rare indeed is the mature person who, if given an opportunity, would set the time-machine back to these years of his or her life.Let me hasten to add that not all need be painful or anxiety-creating or dull. These next few years for you will also include some wonderful and exciting experiences that you will indeed remember for the rest of your lives—not necessarily as they actually happened but as they are reconstructed at reunion time under the influence of Old Siwash and Old Crow. As a matter of fact, one of the most important reasons for going to college is that it
is one of the most pleasant ways to spend these particular years in a person’s life. In my opinion, “going to college” is in one sense largely a consumer good; an important part of the benefit flowing from it comes to end on the day you receive the degree. (All of us who make our lives and livings on campuses recognize this fact, but to many it is embarrassing to admit that they are engaged in serving such frivolous purposes as friendship, excitement, sentiment, and love. For myself, I see nothing wrong in so serving.)My point is not that your college days will be, on balance, painful or pleasant, but only that the college itself, i.e., administration and faculty, will have little to do with it—except perhaps as it influences the quality of the other young people around you.Let’s turn to another one. Come to College B; our exciting new curriculum will guarantee you a superior education. Rogge’s rule is that the more a college talks about its “exciting new curriculum,” the less it really has to offer. Bring together competent, interesting faculty members and reasonably bright, interesting young people and something fine educationally is going to happen, regardless of the curriculum. Absent these two elements and nothing much is going to happen, however exciting the curriculum may appear to be. That doesn’t mean that if you were to come to Wabash you wouldn’t find us (even Ben Rogge) engaged in heated controversy over the Wabash curriculum. What you must understand is that struggles over the curriculum are to the faculty what intramural athletics are to the student body.Here’s another one: Come to College C and we’ll prepare you for citizenship in the challenging, complex world of tomorrow. Who knows, perhaps the best way a college could deliver on this promise would be to teach you how to live off the land following an atomic disaster. Ah! you say, but perhaps College C can equip me to help save the world from an atomic disaster. Don’t be too certain of that. The two countries most likely to launch an atomic disaster (one being our own) pride themselves on the literacy of their citizens and on the excellence of their programs of higher education. The system of higher education in Germany was the wonder of the world, copied in one country after another (including this country), and its scientists designed, among other things, the ingenious gas chambers at Dachau and Auschwitz.I am not saying that education and good citizenship are inversely related. I am saying only that a strong, positive, and direct relationship has yet to be established. It may well be that the citizen whose education has come more from experience and from deep commitment to values than from the brittle world of on-campus intellectuality may be just as good a citizen as any of us with our college degrees. At the very least, this promise can be no more than the expression of a pious wish until more evidence can be collected.Here’s one of the practical kind. Come to College D and you will certainly make more money in your adult years. Now, one piece of practical wisdom you may pick up in college is that correlation does not prove causation. Those who go to college do make more money than those who don’t, but was it the going to college that
caused the higher income?The kind of person who has the brains, the drive, and, yes, the financial backing to go on to college would undoubtedly have made more money than others even if he or she hadn’t gone to college. Some professions and some activities are open only to college graduates, but fortunately many avenues to the high-income suburbs are open to all comers. As a matter of fact, there may well be a surplus of college-trained men and women; i.e., there may even now be more persons seeking the kind of employment and income associated with degree-holding than there are positions of this kind available. If your only interest is in making more money, don’t go to college—become an apprentice plumber or beautician. In any case, the purposes of a true education have nothing to do with the making of money, except as an incidental and far from certain byproduct.I suppose I should now stop shillyshallying and tell you what I, Ben Rogge, believe it
does mean to be truly educated, to tell you what promise, if any, a college of integrity can reasonably make to prospective students, with some hope of delivering on it. Here it is: a good college can say this: “We stand ready to confront you with a good faculty and a good group of fellow students. If you work at it (
an important if) you will leave this place knowing more than when you entered it.” That’s it; that’s all there is. Or I can put it this way, you will have all the personal advantages of knowing over not knowing. Moreover, you will know how to go about knowing even more for the rest of your life; you may even know what it is that is worth knowing and what it is that isn’t worth knowing.Hopefully, you will as well come to know how little you know, in fact how little is known about man and his world by even the most knowledgeable around you. This is to say that you may come to carry with you through life a deep sense of wonder and of awe, not of what you do understand, but of the deep and mysterious processes which neither you nor anyone else fully understands.A brief interjection here: One of the ways in which colleges (and college faculties in particular) have become corrupt in recent years has been the way in which they have sought to woo their students to their personal causes by assuring the students that they, the young, are possessed of a mystical wisdom, a godlike, compassionate understanding of life denied to all over age twenty-two, except of course those few adults who share the vision. This I believe to be nonsense.Young people, and I mean you,
are capable of being intelligent, courageous, selfless, and dedicated, but are
not usually marked by the qualities of wisdom, tolerance, kindness and true compassion. I cannot urge you too strongly to beware of all adults who flatter you and tell you of your wisdom: we seek but to enlist you in our causes, whether of the left or the right or the middle, and we do not honestly believe you to be wise—nor are you, as a matter of fact.To know more, yet to know how little you know—is that all there is to it?Yes, that’s about it. To know more may not be much and it may not be directly useful in the way the world measures usefulness, but at least it’s something. To know more is at least to live an examined rather than an unexamined life; to live in an examined world rather than an unexamined world. In a world in which most human beings are said to live lives of quiet desperation, surely there is something to be said for this increased awareness, this increased perception of shades of meaning, of shades of beauty and ugliness and dissonance, of shades of dignity and integrity and vulgarity and hypocrisy.Nor is respect for style an unimportant byproduct of knowing more. This sense for style, for
how things are said or done, is often thought to be peripheral to the gutty business of life—or even of education. In fact, it seems to me to be one of those terribly important, self-imposed restraints which man has designed to keep himself from slipping back over the precipice into barbarism. Civilization is the most contrived, artificial, and delicate of man’s creations, and its survival rests upon such slender reeds as man’s cultivated sense of style—one of the byproducts of a true education.With this education, this knowing more, should come as well a lifelong habit of observing all that happens, even what happens to you, with a certain detachment, a certain objectivity, a certain curiosity. In a sense, this may be a handicap to you, holding you back from passionate commitment to any single-track cause or single-minded interpretation of human experience—or if you do get so involved, you will occasionally be aware that what you are doing or saying may possibly be a trifle absurd.What else? Let me conclude this somewhat rambling survey of the advantages of knowing more over knowing less with one more comment. Hopefully, the college will also have helped you, in the process, to become very careful about words. Words are the raw material of knowledge and in fact, of much of life, and they deserve to be treated with respect. The educated person will always attempt to use them carefully and precisely and to demand of those who would communicate with him that they do the same. He will have learned that words can be used to inform or to deceive or to inspire or to confuse or to manipulate or to set into action—and will examine each important word used by another with the care and the suspicion with which an oriental peasant examines the fruit in a street market. When he finds a false one, he will reject it as convincingly as one of my favorite heroines of modern literature—and with this I reach the end.This favorite heroine of mine is a little girl in an old cartoon in the
New Yorker magazine. She is being force-fed by her mother, but is obviously rejecting whatever it is that is being offered her. Finally, in desperation, her mother says to her, “But dear, it’s broccoli.” At this, the little three-year-old girl in her high chair looks her mother in the eye and replies, “I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it!”May the next years be exciting and productive for you, and as you go on through life, may you gradually come to the knowledge of the difference between broccoli and spinach, and may you acquire the courage to challenge those who confuse the two.
The findings may or may not be relevant to elementary and secondary education. At the very least, this relevance would have to be established by a study specifically directed to those two stages in the educational process.
A study of various collections of data reveals that the revenues from tuition charges cover from 15 percent to 25 percent of the costs at publicly controlled institutions and from 45 percent to 55 percent of the costs at privately controlled institutions.
The Wealth of Nations (New York: Modern Library, 1937), pp. 717-18.
Thus, Howard Mumford Jones of Harvard University writes, “It is a misleading function when the concept of learning is, as is too often the case, sacrificed to the concept of teaching; when, for example, adolescents are solemnly asked to rate mature scholars in terms of their entertainment value in the classroom, and an administration in turn seriously accepts these callow judgments as a factor in the keeping and promoting of scholars.” Howard Mumford Jones, “The Service of the University,”
ACLS Newsletter, Winter 1956-57, p. 12.
George Stigler, “The Economic Theory of Education,” unpublished manuscript.
One interesting reason for one advantage of the college graduate over the non-college person is to be found in the comment of an executive of one of the large steel companies. He says that his company hires so many college graduates each year in its executive development program, not because they have found college graduates to be clearly superior to non-graduates, but because the union rules on seniority prevent them from advancing the really good men from the work force into positions of responsibility. The same rules do not govern the young college graduates hired directly into the management group, and from this follows the company search for college graduates!
Thad L. Hungate,
A New Basis of Support for Higher Education
(New York: Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University, 1957), p. 7.