The Gift Economy and the Point of College

I've been thinking a lot about the point of college lately. I mean, I am a professor, so I am always thinking about academia, at least in a navel-gazy sort of way. But two life events have made the issue a bit more immediate for me.
12/07/2015 05:32 pm ET Updated Dec 07, 2016

I've been thinking a lot about the point of college lately. I mean, I am a professor, so I am always thinking about academia, at least in a navel-gazy sort of way. But two life events have made the issue a bit more immediate for me.

First, the university I teach at -- Notre Dame -- is in the middle-phase of a major curriculum reform. Talk around the water cooler over the past few months has focused on questions like, what courses should we require and how many requirements should there be? How much should we focus on training our students for particular jobs? And, this being a Catholic school, is it time to rethink the philosophy and theology requirements (currently two apiece)? (Happily nobody yet has suggested replacing a philosophy requirement with a course in welding...)

Second, my youngest brother, Connor, is a high school senior in the final stages of applying to colleges. Last summer we took a road trip around the northeastern part of the United States to look at schools. After a dozen or so admissions tours, I had an epiphany. Some universities have a mostly clear story about what they are about and why they do what they do. The military academies train leaders for the armed services. Notre Dame is "where the Church does its thinking.'' But some universities, including some quite prominent ones, just have no coherent particular view of what they are about. And admissions spiels rarely get into specifics about what they'll give students while they are there. The coherence of the pitch is even more pressing when facing questions -- like the one my brother is facing now -- of where you ought to go and whether it is worth the extraordinary financial sacrifice to have it.

There is also much hemming and hawing in the media nowadays about the extent to which we should think of universities in economic terms. I have no opposition to thinking in economic terms. But sometimes I think we focus too narrowly on the market economy -- viewing every investment as a potential transaction. I give you this blender and I get something equally valuable in return. Or, more to the point: we foot the bill for your education, and in return you make money that is given back to the system in the form of taxes and less need for social support down the road. The trouble with this model is that for just about any course of university study, there is no guaranteed economic payoff. The job market is changing constantly.

What would happen if we started thinking of universities more in terms of a gift economy? In gift economies, one person or group gives something to another without any expectation of reciprocity, because they think it will be valuable to the person who gets the gift and the relationships between giver and receiver. There is a great deal of work on the how and why of gift economies (see for instance David Cheal's The Gift Economy.) But it is holiday season, and you probably don't need much by way of formal sociology to know how these transactions work. You give. You aren't sure what you'll ever get back. The point is bestowing something meaningful to the giftee. And what and how you give speaks volumes about your relationships.

Lately, I've been fretting about Christmas gifts. I usually punt and just send gift cards. Occasionally I try to guess at some appliance the family needs -- rice cooker? But after some bad parental health scares last year, I have been thinking much more about the gift of time. Rather than blowing $150 on a matching set of Fitbits for my parents, I'd rather they be able to have some meaningful experiences together. Trips. Special dinners. Opportunities to catch up on life. Time to plan and celebrate. In my experience, the Fitbits break in under a year. But meaningful experiences only appreciate with time. That's why such experiences are great gifts.

What does this have to do with the point of college? It is a remarkable gift to have opportunities and help, especially when you are young, to think deeply about your life. Do you want to subscribe to any particular religion? Where are your moral lines? What are you able to achieve? What moves you and what leaves you cold? Where do you fit in this much bigger story? And it's a gift to have some time to confront ahead of time the big questions that otherwise ambush you later in life, often when we are least prepared to deal with them. Where should you be investing your money? Why do some families stay together and others fall apart? Is death something to be feared? These are issues a great liberal arts education can address head-on.

Framing college educations purely in "return on investment terms'' is a bit like refusing to buy anything but vacuum cleaners for your loved ones at the holidays. Sure a Dyson is going to make their lives easier in the medium run. But we sell ourselves short if we never try to give the sorts of things that will grow (rather than depreciate) in meaning. Certain kinds of educations -- the kind that offer the time and space to think about the "biggies'' -- these can be an incredible gift we give to others.

Now thinking of higher education in terms of a gift economy does not mean that we think of it merely as a luxury for the very rich, something to be pursued once someone has satisfied her material needs. Indeed, I think it is the opposite. Individuals who face situations of poverty, discrimination or oppression---they are probably the most deserving of the opportunity of such an education. Poverty, racism and oppression have this nefarious tendency of sucking up every moment of one's time, be it by working jobs with unstable hours or constantly needing to devote one's attention to walking unjust social tightropes. Meaning-making experiences should be open to everyone.

And thinking of college in terms of a gift economy does not mean that we abnegate our need to make our institutions of higher education better. Let's face it, some gifts suck. The velvet Elvis poster your Aunt Hilda gifted you from her collection? It is an abomination. And, don't get me wrong, I love getting drawings from my friends' kids. But after a month on the fridge, that thing is destined for the recycle bin. For college to be a gift, it has to offer in a particularly spectacular way these experiences of learning who and what you are about.

Thinking about higher education as a gift economy also doesn't mean we stop focusing on the potential material economic benefits of a college credential. Some of the best gifts are not only profoundly meaningful but also profoundly useful. It does mean we focus only indirectly on building curricula that feed our current job markets, and we focus more on providing experiences that people will look back on ten, twenty, fifty years later and see as profoundly personally valuable. We give college students dinners and not Fitbits. And we do it because we love them, we think it will be meaningful for them, and not because we expect any gain.