Theses on the value of higher education

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.

  1. 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?
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Universities and dawn

Mirror lake at dawn

At sunrise, even the droll ornamental lakes of the university acquire a certain glimmer. The pond weeds become shadows. The shadows wash over the shores of the lake and hide them, which is much for the better, as this lake is populated by geese who have draped the banks with their droppings, each one about the size of a skinned baby carrot. They number in the thousands. Consequently, the mirrored sheen of this fake pond offers only a very incomplete simulation of a beautiful natural scene.

Continue reading Universities and dawn