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Don’t use college to get rich later. Enrich your full self while you study the world

Mercer’s McDuffie Center for Strings plays Daybreak

Mercer University's Robert McDuffie Center for Strings brings Classical and holiday favorites to the Daybreak Center for healing and joy.
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Mercer University's Robert McDuffie Center for Strings brings Classical and holiday favorites to the Daybreak Center for healing and joy.

With fall semester about to start on campuses across the land, this is the ideal time to ask about the benefits that students expect to acquire from attending college or university. Some readers may recall a related scandal in which some wealthy folks paid fabulous sums of money in a scheme to get their children admitted to various prestigious institutions.

With three kids currently enrolled, albeit in more mundane institutions, I feel like I, too, am in a position to ask about the benefits of higher education. The 2018 book “The Case Against Education” contends that for many students, the principal value of education comes in the guise of “signaling.” Education, the iconoclastic author says, may not teach much that’s useful, but the degree does provide information about the student’s “ability and character.” The reward for a sheepskin is a 70 percent increase in pay.

The utilitarian philosophy has been in the ascendant in recent years as enrollments in the humanities and social sciences have declined in favor of more “useful” subjects. Many colleges boast of their career-oriented curricula. This trend comes in response to our current culture, where wealth is increasingly the measure of success in life. Church-going Americans may hear a different sort of message on the Sabbath, but when it comes to day-to-day decisions, the dollar wins out.

Whatever happened to the passion for ideas, the quest to understand our place in the march of civilization, or even the awareness of the philosophic underpinnings of our form of government? At a time when “truth” seems an elusive commodity, we also have to ask ourselves if we have even a rudimentary understanding of our heritage.

History and civics are two of the things that have taken on a reduced role in higher education. It may be that – like literature and the social sciences – matters that don’t lend themselves to empirical evaluation have fallen out of favor since they can’t be readily subjected to digital assessment.

When we seek to get our children admitted to college, then, what is it that we are hoping for? Is it our goal that they will be eligible for lucrative employment? Is that the end-all of life, that we are born to make as much money as possible, perhaps reproduce, and finally retire with a gold watch?

My youngest child recently went through the process of looking at the virtues of various colleges. The word “success” was used often. In her admittedly limited search, the best slogan I heard came from right here in Macon, where Mercer proclaims “Where every student majors in changing the world.”

Also noteworthy is America’s third oldest college (after Harvard College and the College of William and Mary). Renowned for its curriculum based on the great ideas, St. John’s students do not declare majors.

While we all have to earn a living, would it be a worthy expenditure of time to ask if the world today is a better place than at some shimmering point in the past. And what about the “meaning of life?” Why indeed are we here?

Colleges don’t spend as much time on such matters as they once did. Is this a concern? Thomas Jefferson, who went on from William and Mary to found a university himself, argued that democracy and education are tightly yoked.

Wealth may be able to purchase a prestige degree, and that degree will open vocational doors, but will it provide a true education, one rich in the values that will sustain this American nation?

Larry Fennelly is a local educator.

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