When my high school freshman daughter, in a class devoted to “aspirations” or some other such elective nonsense, was asked on a questionnaire all the kids filled out as part of the class, what she wanted to do when she graduated high school, she put down that she wanted to go to college to get an M.R.S. degree (i.e., a “Mrs.”, “find a husband” degree).  When asked how she would prepare for achieving her goals, she said she would start dating college guys while still in high school.  When asked what she would study if she went to college, she replied, “Beer drinking and hot guys.”  When asked where she planned to attend college, she offered Ole Miss.  When asked why, she said because she liked their nonsensical Hotty Totty cheer, and that the Grove there had been recently named by some television show as the number one place for football tailgating. 

I could not have been more proud. 

I knew that she didn’t literally mean what she said, but was just pushing back against the reigning idiocy that the sole purpose of a high school student’s life is to get into a good college, with follow-on undergraduate studies directed at training for some occupation currently favored by the economic winds, no matter the student’s actual interests and aptitude. 

As she explained to a friend of hers whose dad is a doctor and has swallowed hook, line and sinker the idea that the sole measure of the value of one’s life is how much money and prestige they can accumulate during its passage, “Why sacrifice your enjoyment of today for a future that may not ever come?  Besides, who ever said attending college is the only way to go?  What if I don’t want some boring job in an office, but would like to actually do something interesting?”

Damn, that kid is a whole lot smarter than I give her credit for.  She makes all A’s, but I never figured she had so much good sense.

When she told me all this, I told her she was bringing up profound issues about life and its meaning and purpose, while at the same time touching on things having an immediate resonance today.  Like Obama’s pandering to his collegiate constituents with a school loan debt relief program.   

College is a very expensive investment.  Like a McMansion in the suburbs these days, investing in a college education seems more and more to be a dicey proposition.  It’s not clear that students will ever see much return from a vast swath of potential majors.  From gender studies to fitness management majors, it’s difficult to see how the knowledge and skills obtained are to be translated to goods and services for which people are willing to pay, as an example cited in the Wall Street Journal highlights:

AnaTeresa Bagatella, a Purdue University fitness-management major, started taking out student loans in 2009, when she entered college. Now, 20-year-old Ms. Bagatella has about $10,000 in debt and expects to need another $15,000 by the time she hopes to graduate in 2013. “I’m already worried about loans and debt, and I’m not even out of school yet,” she said.

What exactly, one wonders, does a “fitness-management” major do to earn money?   And why keep borrowing money if you have no clue how you’ll pay it back?

But what is the point of a college education? 

Is it to provide a foundation for understanding how to think that one might apply to any and all of life’s future endeavors and challenges?  That’s doubtful, else colleges would mainly focus on imparting a knowledge and understanding of how man has solved the problems of existence throughout history in order to provide a template for doing so today.  It seems that providing an education is the last thing college is about.  Colleges no longer teach people how to think, they teach them what to think, if they teach them anything at all.

Is the purpose to train for a specific occupation?  In some cases, e.g., nursing or engineering or teaching, college acts as an apprenticeship program, providing training, not education, for a specific occupation.  In the premises, this is perhaps the best can be hoped for.  The problem with training for a specific occupation is that only rarely are hands-on opportunities provided, and there is no fallback education in the event a job fails to materialize after the training is complete.  Apprenticeship and job training are best done, and really only done, through direct job experience.   Mechanics don’t go to college to learn how to work on an engine.  Why should engineers?   Who is smarter about things on a factory floor; the twenty-year veteran foreman, or some wet-behind-the-ears mechanical engineer straight out of college?

Perhaps the point of a college education is simply to waste time and money until settling down to an occupation.  This seems to be the main purpose these days, and both parents and the federal government have become facilitators in this regard.  College serves as an extension of high school, or more aptly, as an extended summer camp.  Colleges are chosen according to their reputations for extra-curricular fun.  The whole point seems to be an extension of childhood, of the infantile stage of existence, when others provided the necessities of life.  College is used as a purposeful cover exercise for helicopter parents and their co-dependent children, allowing each to pretend that the child-rearing gig around which they structured their lives for so many years is not over.  

Considering the gathering infantilism in the populace as a whole, with seemingly every adult in America looking for Washington to feel and soothe their pains, no matter how small or inconsequential or of their own doing, it is not surprising that college might take on the tenor of a summer camp for young adults.  Adulthood hardly asks much more than summer camp might, so why not just treat college as camp?  There’s hardly anybody left in this culture that believes they have primary responsibility for their own happiness.   It’s the government’s job to feed them, clothe them, house them, and most importantly, keep them entertained.   College is as real as it gets from the perspective of the entitled masses.

My son is a high school senior, and so receives mailings nearly every day from various colleges to which he’s sent his admission score results.  It appears he will attend college somewhere next fall.  I can’t seem to convince him that college, without having a purpose in mind for going, is a waste of time and money.   My voice is a lone voice in a wilderness of family, friends, school and society that beckons him to college.  I’m sure he (correctly) thinks that high school is also a waste of time, so except for the money, what’s the difference?  He’s had a rough row to hoe in life, having had two bone marrow transplants, and so I’m probably more forgiving of his desire to march in lockstep with his peers.  But for me, I would likely wish to do quite the opposite of my peers had I endured two transplants, maybe spending the money already promised for college with a bit of reckless abandon.  Life is short, as he well knows.  It is not sanctified by achievements, in college or otherwise, as he ought also know as well. 

In the meantime, I need to spend more time discussing things with my daughter.  She seems to have broken the code—that ambition and achievement ultimately always fail to sanctify one’s life, and that a college degree is as apt to waste time and money as it is to facilitate achieving some existential goal.  Maybe with her understanding of the hollow promise a college degree affords in the 21st century, she can save herself the time and trouble, and achieve a sliver more of whatever slice of happiness she seeks. 

Having seen her brother’s struggles with cancer, she well understands the temporal nature of existence, and that plans are nothing more than a basis from which to deviate according to the exigencies of the moment.   After she gets out of high school, she wants to drive the Pan-American highway, hike the Appalachian Trail and backpack across Europe, not necessarily in that order.  I’d say that experiences like that might just provide an educational foundation upon which any manner of training for a skill or occupation might be erected.  Provided, of course, as she acknowledged, that she lives to see graduation, which she has wisely learned is always a contingency with which to reckon.