12/06/2013 09:24 am ET | Updated Feb 05, 2014

The 'Why College?' Question

Two questions presently dominate the public discourse on education: whether college students should major in the humanities and whether a six-year Brooklyn high school should be the new model for secondary education in the United States. Underlying these surface debates is a question of whether the cost of college is "worth it," with "worth" being the key term in contention. If today's college student graduates with an average $35,000 in debt, what kind of degree will allow her to break even and begin accruing profit? The second debate introduces an alternative to college, suggesting that a baccalaureate may not be necessary if vocational skills can be learned in technical schools and in entry positions on the job. The skyrocketing cost of higher education has created a niche for innovations in education reform. But, at what point does the value of a college degree outweigh these costs? Perhaps what's really at stake is this: what is the point of college?

Proponents of the liberal arts will be the first to tell you that colleges should teach us how to think. A liberal arts education, they say, cultivates thoughtful citizenship, improves the democratic decision-making process, and offers fulfillment in personal life. Martha Nussbaum's commencement address to Colgate University in 2010 expounds on these benefits. Colleges should compel us to ponder what it means to be human and to provide us with the tools to think critically about society and our role as self-reflective participants within.

Adversaries respond with practical concerns: the burden of student debt, a meager job market, and the demand to expand one's technical skill set. They argue, like Daryl Michael Scott, that the humanities should incorporate more vocational training, pinning colleges with the responsibility to prepare young adults for future careers in the real world.

This debate frames the "why college" question as a conflict between who we want to be and what we want to do: is college a means to a flourishing career or a flourishing human race?

Suppose we agree that college should teach more practical and professional skills; we are compelled to consider why other options, such as vocational school or extending the length of high school, as Pathways in Technology Early College High School ("P-Tech") has, are not better alternatives to schooling. This six-year model for high school is an innovative collaboration between City Tech (the City University of New York's Early College Initiative), the NYC Department of Education, and IBM that trains students in computer technology, equipping them with skills that lead to job opportunities at IBM and similar companies. It renders college potentially irrelevant.

Suppose we think college should focus on cultivating good citizens. Then, if the aforementioned values that the liberal arts offer are so crucial to a democratic society, should they not be emphasized earlier on? Why is it the explicit burden of college and not former schooling to specialize in this type of education? Education reformers have proposed that increasing parental and community engagement could bolster both student and school success. Then, we might ask, where does education begin, what minimum level of education should citizens possess, and at what point is it government's responsibility to provide these resources?

There are certainly more (and more complex) answers to the "why college" question than those outlined here. This becomes evident as soon as we realize that we cannot afford to live in a society where college graduates are the only ones engaged in the practice of conscious citizenship. The globalizing world demands us to image life from perspectives vastly different from our own just as much as it requires effective communication and critical thinking skills. College is just too late to start acquiring these necessities.

The history of Western education shows that there are no a priori answers to these questions. Thinkers past have grounded their prescriptions for education reform on presuppositions about the nature of the individual and her relationship to society. Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Emile, An Education (1762) based his belief that the proper education was a negative one on the view that society corrupts man of his innate goodness by dulling his natural inclinations. Friedrich Fröbel established the first kindergarten in 1837, trusting that games and physical activity were crucial to childhood development. At the point in which all education reform depends on some fundamental belief about the individual and society, we see that reform is at once an assessment of society's current state and an expression of what we hope it can be. It is at this point that the question of education reform explodes into a question of society reform.

To conclude with a few concessions: Reforming education is difficult, not least because education competes with other American principles that demand economic attention, and the concerns that I bring up are nothing new. But I urge us to set aside questions of majors for a moment (and we can, because the data show that your major need not determine employability) and reframe our thinking. We must have an answer for "Why college?" if we are to answer "Why humanities?" But we must also know "Why education?" if we want an answer to either. Inquiries into the reform of education should start with a conversation about education's value. What these present debates miss is the "Why" question. It attempts to ask how education reform should be prioritized without providing a scale by which to measure these priorities. Only with a clear idea of where we're headed can we talk about how to get there.