Joseph S. Fulda
Joseph Fulda is a freelance writer living in New York City. He is the author of Eight Steps Towards Libertarianism.
"Purpose" is subjective and there are as many purposes for colleges as there are students, faculty, and administrators. But "function" is an objective matter, which wells out from all these purposes taken collectively. The purposes of the majority of players, in number and in funds, decide how those purposes play out in terms of actual social function. Let us speak plainly. Administrators routinely tout their institutions as career builders and paths to shining success -- and as fun places to spend four years. Thus, Directors of Admission have become Vice Presidents for Enrollment Management, and Deans of Students have been replaced or supplemented by Vice Presidents for Student Affairs. Students buy into this combo big-time. Overwhelmingly they attend colleges as career builders and as hoped-for paths to possible shining success -- while, hopefully, having a long and enjoyable ride.
Faculty, on the other hand, to a man and to a woman, are there to teach modes of critical thinking, reading, writing, and discrete bodies of knowledge, which they find both interesting and important. With a few exceptions, if truth be told, students are right on-target with the claim that hardly anything specific they learn in school will be of more than marginal use in a job or a career, a distinction often made which does not hold water. White-collar jobs, which is where most students will and hope to end up, require a plenitude of skills -- the most critical being proficiency with Microsoft Office, but most of these are learned or assimilated -- quickly or not -- on-the-job.
Yet students keep coming back for more, and faculty keep teaching critical skills and bodies of knowledge. And, it works! The holders of degrees do earn more, considerably more over a lifetime. Why? I suggest the following hypothesis. The main lesson students need to learn for the world of white-collar work is neither knowledge nor skills, but the single overriding necessity of maintaining attentional focus for extended periods of time on detailed matters that do not interest them. College provides most students with huge doses of this skill. The better workers will eventually devote enough focus and attention to their companies' goals as to become genuinely interested. These are the same workers who as students manage to fall into enough of their professors' nets to get genuinely interested in whatever is being taught. College is a four-year obstacle course which demonstrates to employers that graduates can, in greater or lesser degree, make the agenda of their employers -- like that of their professors before them -- their own. In this, it succeeds admirably.
Along the way, however, some students at most universities and many students at a few universities do much more than gain a semester's interest in a subject to which they were initially indifferent. These students begin to adopt the attitude of their teachers in finding academic subjects overwhelmingly intriguing, and they go on to get Ph.D.s. The normal function of college has failed utterly for these students; they cannot focus and maintain attention on the myriad of mundane, uninteresting tasks in which some company expects them to acquire (at least the illusion of) interest. Instead, these students really have only one option open to them, to focus on what they are interested in, an agenda of inquiry of their own making, normally possible (almost) only in an academic environment. This explains the overwhelming success of U.S. colleges and universities at producing excellent white-collar workers with bachelors' degrees and simultaneously a large number of Ph.D.s who are genuinely fit for no work other than as academics. It also explains, I think, why many Ph.D.s who are denied intellectual work the nature of which they can, at least in part, shape, choose not white-collar jobs on which they truly cannot focus, but instead service or blue-collar jobs which require a host of skills that notably exclude the main lesson that is taught to most college students -- the ability to maintain attention and focus on a myriad of uninteresting-to-them details -- the classic example being the taxi driver with the doctorate.
Thus, students are right when they say "the stuff" they're taught doesn't matter in (work) life, and right when they say a degree is important to getting a job; professors are right when they say that attending (in) class and doing homework is critical to students' success in life; and administrators are right in the way they depict their institutions. Everyone is "right" in the sense relevant to them, although no one has the whole picture figured out quite right yet. The above is one man's attempt. *
"Nothing fails like success because we don't learn from it. We learn only from failure." --Kenneth Boulding