Last month I read in the New York Times that, as the costs of college rise and rise again, “college may become unaffordable for most in U.S.” That struck me as a wretched situation.
It’s probably also false. What’s actually happening, according to another article a few weeks later, is that applications to expensive private universities are dropping, while more students are probably going to go to cheaper schools, particularly public schools. But the question remains: if fewer people got to go to college, why would that be a bad thing? Or rather, what makes higher education valuable?
I have to say I’m skeptical about most of the arguments I’ve encountered in this arena. I have an intuition that there is something worth defending, but most of the existing arguments seem deeply flawed. Here I just want to outline some critical and methodological theses that seem to demand our attention.
- Sound arguments are neither necessary or sufficient for a thing’s existence or value. Higher education does not stand or fall on the basis of a sound argument in its favor. Many, probably most, teachers and students have no good argument to justify their activity, and that doesn’t necessarily make a difference. (Social practice, mercifully, need not be founded on philosophically valid premises.) Insofar as going to college has become a customary part of the life course for Americans of a certain social class, it can just become something that one does, almost as a matter of ritual. Does one go to college because it is valuable to do so, or does it come to seem valuable because one does it?