Advice to a Young Collegiate: Memento Mori

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American higher education is on the cusp of change. Figures for average tuition and cumulative debt are skyrocketing, while the value of degrees is deflating. Newcomers to the job market are defaulting on their loans more than ever. At the same time, disruptive new technologies and educational strategies are usurping the dusty, sprawling, bureaucratic, green-fisted university system. Solving the large, complex institution’s problems has proven thorny (at best). How to best serve the students? The faculty? The university? The country? Humanity?

“Education has one salient enemy in present-day America,” writes Mark Edmundson in an essay for Oxford American’s education issue, “and that enemy is education–university education in particular.” As a teacher, Edmundson understands and takes issue with the profit motive of higher education. He doesn’t say that American education is categorically “bad.” For example, of professors he writes that “[t]he people who do this work have highly developed intellectual powers, and they push themselves hard to reach a certain standard.” Fair enough. One problem: “That the results have almost no practical relevance to the students, the public, or even, frequently, to other scholars is a central element in the tragicomedy that is often academia.”

Edmundson’s catch-all solution goes beyond the usual Hail Mary defense of liberal arts, a panacea partly pragmatic and partly delusional: memento mori. Remember that you only live once and that most people only have one chance to attend college.

He recalls a formative episode sitting at the dinner table and telling his father–a hardscrabble, near-dropout, middle-class, by-the-bootstraps man–that he was thinking about pursuing a “pre-law” education. As Edmundson tells it, that’s when his father “detonated”:

He told me that I was going to go to college only once, and that while I was there I had better study what I wanted. He said that when rich kids went to school, they majored in the subjects that interested them, and that my younger brother Philip and I were as good as any rich kids. (We were rich kids minus the money.) Wasn’t I interested in literature? I confessed that I was. Then I had better study literature, unless I had inside information to the effect that reincarnation wasn’t just hype, and I’d be able to attend college thirty or forty times. If I had such info, pre-law would be fine, and maybe even a tour through invertebrate biology could also be tossed in. But until I had the reincarnation stuff from a solid source, I better get to work and pick out some English classes from the course catalog.

As is often the case with this type of essay, Edmundson only obliquely confronts the issue of rampant unemployment among recent graduates. Rather than littering his conclusion with reassuring statistics about the job prospects of a liberal education, he defers to Robert Frost:

If you advance in the direction of someone else’s dreams–if you want to live someone else’s life rather than yours–then get a TV for every room, buy yourself a lifetime supply of your favorite quaff, crank up the porn channel, and groove away. But when we expend our energies in rightful ways, Robert Frost observed, we stay whole and vigorous and we don’t weary. “Strongly spent,” the poet says, “is synonymous with kept.”

Source: Oxford American

Image by Carnoodles, licensed under Creative Commons.

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