What is College?

For Mattie—hope this helps

College is a whole lot of things, most of them bad. Your classmates will be going to college for three main reasons. First, because of the vague feeling that they are supposed to, implanted in them by teachers, parents, and television shows. The desire, in other words, for “The College Experience.” Second, because they believe it will help them make money, either affording them upward mobility into a higher economic bracket or, if they’re already well-off, giving them the means of staying in the upper class. Third, sports.

These three reasons for going to college translate into three of the main purposes of college, especially big state universities (like the University of Memphis). Here are a few things you might say college “is for,” on account of these reasons. First, as a very expensive recreation center for teenagers, a place for pursuing the youthful pleasures of parties, drugs, and sex. Second, as a workforce training center, producing a vast array of different kinds of managers and technicians. (Most “practical” skills—carpentry, plumbing, how to work an X-ray machine, etc.—are taught at community colleges and other kinds of training centers; these are great programs and the pursuits they train are noble. 4-year colleges and universities, on the other hand, mostly produce people who become lawyers and professionals with titles like “Associate Project Developer.”) Third, a multi-billion-dollar sports entertainment complex that has nothing to do with—and in most cases, is actively hostile to—the academics of the institution.

Universities have a bunch of other purposes, however: a collection of high-level research institutes for experimental science, mostly physics and neurobiology; a feeder for the exploitative academic publishing industry, which slaps multi-hundred-dollar pricetags on books and articles while paying the authors nothing; a money laundering operation where billions of dollars of federal loan money (not to mention all the foreign capital provided by international students) are soaked up and transformed into who knows what. Smaller liberal arts colleges have less of the first of these, but just as much of the second and third. Spend any time on a big university campus, however, and you’ll be surrounded mostly by these kinds of activities. Genuine learning is a minority position.

Which brings me to the fourth reason for going to college: actually thinking about, reading about, learning about stuff. Despite what you will hear from almost literally everybody, these activities are good for their own sake. There is no reason for learning beyond the fact that done properly, it contributes to a richer and deeper life. Learning about the important things is tough, and often necessitates a teacher, who at the very least can help you figure out what and how to learn. But for many (if not most) professors, teaching is just part of their job, and their real focus is on “research”: writing articles and books about whatever subject they are supposedly an “expert” in. This is usually not their fault, but has to do with the way the academic job market works: professors are demanded to “publish or perish”; in many cases keeping a job depends upon publishing articles and books and has little to do with their skills as an educator.

But in most of these institutions, there exists some dedicated professor—or group of professors—who cares about asking questions that pertain to the permanent problems of being a human being: how we should live, how we find meaning in the world, how old books might help us see these problems and find ways to solve or at least understand them. These professors care about the art of teaching, and their interest in students and their willingness to engage in discussion rather than just lecturing distinguishes them from the other group of indifferent researchers. This fourth purpose of college is the one of least interest to most students and professors and the hardest to actually pursue at a school—but is the most valuable one. And the places that still carry out this kind of learning are precious and rare.

One term you’re likely to run into when talking to people about college is “The Humanities.” This is usually referring to a collection of academic disciplines that concern “the humane sciences,” which is what we used to call the study of things outside the purview of such “natural sciences” as biology, chemistry, physics, etc. Academic disciplines and majors lumped into “The Humanities” usually include English, creative writing, theater, history, philosophy, Western Classics (the study of ancient Greek and Roman civilizations), anthropology and archaeology, religion, various languages, etc. Hardly anyone can really articulate what “The Humanities” are for anymore, and if you ask, nine out of ten answers will have something to do with making the world a better place or challenging stuffy old understandings of the world that we don’t like anymore. But however noble these goals might be, they still miss the point.

“The Humanities” are important because they allow for focused, disciplined inquiry of what it means to be a human person—not just as an organism, as the biologists might have it, but as a thinking, feeling, loving self, who must make decisions about how to act both individually and with others. They provide room for questioning the ways we live today, and regard anything human beings have ever done—writing, art, ways of building, methods of burial, whatever—as potential sources of wisdom for how we might live otherwise. The ethos of the Humanities can be summed up by a famous aphorism by the second-century Roman playwright Terence: “I am human, and nothing human is alien to me.” A twelfth-century manuscript on astronomy may be just as valuable to our understanding of human life as the ruins of a prehistoric city, or a style of clay pot construction in ancient Crete, or a quietly brilliant book published 50 years ago by a relative nobody. Different fields have different focuses, and some demand more disciplinary narrowness than others. But they all agree that human life as it is lived is something to be examined, and that carrying out this examination makes our lives richer.

Obviously these kinds of investigations can happen elsewhere than in a college or university: there are countless brilliant readers, writers, and thinkers pursuing these kinds of researches all over the world who have no affiliation with any institution of higher education. But there are some colleges where smart and gracious professors have dedicated their lives to preserving a space for this kind of inquiry. These places are not necessarily the “best” schools: Harvard, Yale, and all the big fancy Ivy League universities are, and have been for a long time, mostly places where the upper-class get the credentials they need to stay upper-class. But there are lots of little schools, and little departments in bigger schools, around the country doing a very special and valuable thing that would be of benefit to you. And these are places where you will also find yourself among other people on the hunt for the truth, with whom you can talk, think, plan, and forge lifelong friendships that keep the fire of learning lit forever.

Hopefully this lends a bit of clarity to an otherwise very confusing subject. I love you, I’m insanely proud of and excited for you, and I’m so lucky to be able to help you navigate this next chapter in your life.

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