Looking back 35 years to my college experience, I have come to certain conclusions about what constitutes a good enough education. I attended an elite college that was, at the time, affordable for my middle-class family. I value my time there enormously, and in some sense, it still shadows the way I teach and what I think an education should be. And yet when I think about what transpired during those years in college, I recall two courses (for the life of me, I can’t remember most of the others I took), only one of which was a source of true intellectual engagement. The rest were simply classes I attended and for which I wrote papers and did labs. They did not impress themselves in any overt way on my young and malleable mind. If my college experience were to be judged by the “value-added” criteria now used to assess what makes college worth the price, I fear that it would not come off well.
And yet, what made my college years so good was something more ineffable—it was a climate of learning that the university, by definition, fostered. Even the most mediocre of professors modeled something of worth—a linguistic facility, a sense that books and ideas were important and that there were people who devoted their lives to them. There was also the time I spent with my gifted peers, mostly over lunch and dinner, and the intellectual jumpstart I got from that one course, where I learned to think broadly and deeply.
Maybe we expect too much from college, which, like so much in life, is about serendipity—in this case, the serendipity of value. If we grant the fact that the university atmosphere is in itself special (and I realize that some people may not be willing to grant this, but I am convinced that it is so), perhaps the most students can hope for are one or two courses that are intellectually exciting and a few friends with whom they can exercise their minds and share ideas. This may seem paltry, but it is, I believe, all that is really required. It shouldn’t cost a fortune—the subject for another column—but it may be that only at great cost can we increase the odds that students will find these things. After all, a memorable course for one student may be entirely forgettable for another. If it’s value-added we want—or value-added in some measurable way—then we might as well send our kids to trade schools where they will learn concrete and easily measureable skills.
This sort of ineffable learning is more likely to happen if there are bodies in a classroom. For this means that students can recess afterward for a more prolonged conversation of the subject matter over lunch, dinner, or coffee. (I continue to feel strongly that meals are important settings for intellectual engagement.) One suggestion I have for high school students and their parents who are visiting colleges is that they spend time in the dining hall and in university lounges and coffee shops to watch how students congregate and gauge the quality of the discussion taking place.
To get something out of college, it might help to remember the phrase my mother used when, in my 20s, I would complain that I hadn’t met anyone I could imagine spending my life with. “You just need to find one,” she said. Students may need only one truly engaging class and only a handful of people with whom they can connect over meals or coffee to get launched into a kind of engagement with life and ideas that is the beginning of true learning.
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