Last week, President Obama released his plan to make college more affordable. Many of his proposals are refreshing and exciting, but the resulting discussions about the value of a college education are actually quite stale. Policymakers and academics have weighed in, but one voice remains curiously absent--the college student's. I think we deserve some time at the podium.
Given the opportunity to discuss the value and usefulness of a college education, I'd share a story -- in the spirit of my history and political-science major -- about a train ride taken by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the cranky, craggy jurist who served on the U.S. Supreme Court until he was nearly 91. He was rummaging through his pockets for his ticket when the conductor recognized Holmes, approached his seat, and offered that a lost ticket was no problem. "When you find the ticket, Mr. Justice," the conductor said, "just mail it to the company."
"Young man," Holmes responded sternly, "the problem is not 'where is my ticket?' The problem is 'where am I going?' "
In some ways, Holmes's circumstances are similar to those facing college students like me. Like Holmes, we paid for our seats, and like Holmes, we are careening toward a destination that is unclear. Yet, Holmes's singular focus was on the destination. He had no reason to learn from the journey, take interest in his fellow passengers, improve the state of the train or reflect on the experience of his train ride.
College students are not in the same position. We shouldn't concern ourselves exclusively with the destination printed on our ticket; instead, we must focus our attention on the journey it permits us to take. The college experience can be a formative, altering one, but only we can determine how and how much. The classes we take, people we meet, causes we pursue and groups we join while on campus are not supposed to be mile markers passing us by. They should change us at our core.
A variety of forces have emerged to discourage that very attitude, urging us to move through college as quickly as possible, gaining whatever skills most obviously connect to our chosen career path, with little interest in developing the broader skills of mind and spirit that are just as important. These forces stem from a novel concept of college that a degree is only as valuable as the job it helps secure, which reduces the attainment of that degree to a series of transactions: an input and an output.
But essays are not merely about answers. Classes are not merely about grades. College is not merely about a career. It is so easy to move through this entire experience as if it were part of some grand checklist. Five sources cited: check. Two lab sciences completed: check. When we strip away the expectations to be met, the criteria to be fulfilled, the core requirements to be completed, we'll find that the college experience is meant to engender a lifestyle that will hopefully last well beyond our college years.
Since starting college, I've interned in the U.S. Senate, with a large foundation and with a small movie-production company and venture-capital firm. Each of my supervisors placed value on analytical skills and the ability to weigh arguments and make a proposal. They valued the abilities that a college education is uniquely suited to develop.
Traditional residential liberal-arts colleges like the one I attend develop qualities of mind and spirit that, while difficult to quantify, are useful in every industry and field. We aren't perfect. We need to address rising tuition costs while dedicating resources to attracting students for whom this education would normally be entirely out of reach. We also need our own accountability rubric, and I think all would welcome the help of President Obama --Columbia University class of 1983 and Harvard University class of 1991 -- in developing it. The very skills that he embodies--reason, intellect, compassion, cognitive flexibility--are the ones colleges like mine are trying to develop.
I hope President Obama will help afford others the opportunity to access the same type of education--an education of the mind and spirit--that he had.
Follow William Nelligan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/williamnelligan