Deliberation, Education ... and Immigration

07/22/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I begin my fortieth year on the instructor's side of the lectern in late August. My tuition-paying friends have every right to expect that I would have learned by now what higher education is for. But the skirmishing about its aims and methods -- much of it ably discussed when blogs cover or hover over what are called "culture wars" -- always starts me thinking about what I've not yet learned to express unambiguously.

Going to college for "useful knowledge," to get ahead in the professions? Colleagues Andy Abbot and Mark Henrie are probably right that you're likely to get farther faster if you spend those four years apprenticing with seasoned practitioners in your areas of special interest. Looking for fun in college? My classes on late antiquity might not be the best ride? Besides, when fun, fraternities, and freedom from parental supervision settle at the center of one's reply to our question "why," college begins to resemble an extended moratorium or recess from responsibility.

Going to college to "encounter" diversity? True, if you listen to some apologists touting collegiate multiculturalism, you could be excused for assuming that any college was just about the most cosmopolitan place on earth. But four years on the road to just about anywhere or divided among a few workplaces would net students more diversity, less reckless trafficking in ideologically charged claims about "difference," and greater perspective on -- and sympathy for -- indignant complaints lodged against xenophobia or "hegemonic discourse" than four or more years at alma mater.

So why go? Let's admit that career advancement, fun, and variety have places in any good answer's line-up. There's also the so-called "civilizing effect." Yet colleagues who emphasize higher education's wondrous work turning adolescents into cultured adults remind me of the exaggerated Oxbridge arrogance memorably parodied in the story of a student accosted by a townswoman outside his college. The "great war" was on; she wanted to know why the gentleman was not off, defending western civilization. "Madam," he explained, "I am Western Civilization."

Nothing wrong with civilization, although I see so little of it and of civility these days, so the intellectual virtues associated with civilization -- energy, curiosity, agility of mind -- to your answer to our "why." But be mindful that there's something still more important. We go to college to learn and practice the art of deliberation, which, says Amy Gutmann, President of the University of Pennsylvania, is absolutely indispensable for a good society and for the good of its citizens. For "traditional" students, college is conveniently located between their dinner table and conference tables or, to be precise, between a child's place at the former and an adult's at both. We go to college to learn to negotiate differences, some of which would otherwise threaten the families or freedoms we cherish. We go to college to learn to get along in a pluralistic society without permitting a "politics of difference" and persistent pursuit of self-interest to destroy democracy. A classroom is for conversation, not just with the dead but about them, conversation with our student and faculty colleagues whose various socio-economic, ethnic, religious backgrounds and judgments enrich the mix. Deliberation of that kind liberates. Certainly, Justice Felix Frankfurter was not the first to say that education is "training in liberty"; it's too obvious.

That's why one goes to college -- and why we should invite neighbors whose experiences with liberty have been, and still are, different from ours. We invite those neighbors to be part of America's still imperfect yet admirable experiment in collective self-determination. But what if their resentments -- after generations of servitude or during constant, current struggles to overcome others' resentments and attachments to protocols that define "legally present" -- make those neighbors awkward partners in deliberation? That's not been my experience, and I've been at work among undocumented Latino/a youth and their families for six years. But Frankfurter, in 1940 (Minersville v. Gobitis), expressed a confidence in education's civilizing influence about as well as John Henry Newman did. Frankfurter urged us to "utilize the educational process for inculcating those almost unconscious feelings which bind [people] together."

If we deny the children of our newest neighbors the places in higher education, places that, by their determination, intelligence, and discipline, they've earned, they'll unlikely become skilled in deliberation -- in courteous, magnanimous contestation. So, what will become of that determination, intelligence, and discipline? If they are not a part of our classroom deliberations, we'll all be less effective managing both diversity and freedom. That's too high a price to pay for perpetuating an underclass.