Robert Pondiscio is a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank in Washington.
A few weeks from now, my wife and I will pack our only child and all her gear into the back of our rapidly aging Ford Escape with a big new college decal on the back window. We will drive her across five states and 500 miles to Chapel Hill, N.C. Interstate 95 will henceforth be known in our home as the Trail of Tears.
There is nothing novel about my family’s bittersweet road trip. And despite how anachronistic and inefficient college has become, I expect and hope that the sight of cars packed to the windows with bedding, clothes and the trappings of teenage life will remain a late summer fixture on America’s highways for generations to come.
Few spheres of American life are more ripe for disruption by technology and price pressures than our higher education system. College can be difficult to defend in the face of runaway tuition, crushing debt and educational outcomes of questionable value. Undergraduate teaching is too often treated as an afterthought at major research universities. The next scandal with big-time college sports is never far away. Good jobs requiring technical skills go unfilled while philosophy majors make cappuccinos at Starbucks. Students still pile into lecture halls by the hundreds when they could be learning as much at home, online or on their phone. Surely there’s a better way.
My own college education was cheap, rigorous and largely self-directed — an early example of what some education pundits and futurists foresee for all young people. In his book, “The End of College,” Kevin Carey breathlessly described what he dubbed “The University of Everywhere,” where tech entrepreneurs “will liberate hundreds of millions of people around the world, creating ways of learning that have never existed before.” The seismic shifts he foresees will “also upend a cornerstone of the American meritocracy, fundamentally altering the way our society creates knowledge and economic opportunity.” College as we know it will be replaced by “digital learning environments of unprecedented sophistication.”
Oh, brave new world. So why, despite my own experience, is “The University of Everywhere” the last thing I’d wish or want for my own child? The other day I was speaking with my daughter about the journey she is about to begin. She undoubtedly steeled herself for a dad talk about studying hard and getting good grades. Instead I surprised her and myself with a very different conversation. “You’re going to college to study, to be an athlete and to have a social life,” I found myself telling her. “And they’re all important.” I confessed to her that one of my biggest regrets was leaving college midway through my sophomore year. I’ve always felt poorer for never quite finding my way back to campus life as a full-time student.
My non-traditional path through college did my career no discernible damage. I earned my degree through a combination of classes, work experience and credit by examination. My self-directed education was almost certainly more rigorous than it might have been had I just stayed in school for four years. I got an education and a credential, but not college.
There’s a technocratic impulse associated with our efforts to improve schools. In the main, it’s helpful. Because education plays such a pivotal role in our society, we are drawn to do all in our power to ensure that our children get the maximum benefit from schooling. Yet if we are candid, we must admit that our well-intended efforts to improve K-12 education have too often led us to reduce schooling to a dry and desultory regimen of reading, math and not much else.
Those of us who call ourselves reformers have been quick to conflate academic performance with a school’s worth. But like Oscar Wilde’s quip about people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing, schools at every level play a cultural and civic role that transcends mere academic performance. We lose sight of the hold that “school” has on our civic life and culture — the elementary school where we learned to read and recite the Pledge of Allegiance or the alma mater where we made the friend whose wedding we danced at 10 years later.
Our technocratic impulses to make things more efficient can leave us blinkered about what matters to other people. Critics may deride the “cultural habit” of college, but that habit, for many, is the point. If the basic model of college has remained unchanged for half a century or more, one explanation is that the academy is reluctant to change. Another is that it’s a tradition and a cultural value that continues to resonate with us.
At a time when we are growing ever more distrustful of the institutions that bind us together and form the fabric of civic life — from bowling leagues and churches to police departments and political parties — I hope I will be forgiven for being less than eager to see another one sacrificed on the altar of efficiency. Our habits, customs and values are forged over generations. We ought not be cavalier in our disregard for them.
There are certain events in American life that carry enormous resonance: Buying a home, raising a family, saving for college. Then comes the long-envisioned day when, if you are fortunate, you drive your child to college and drop her off with all her things and two sets of dreams: Hers, which are just beginning. And yours, which have just come true.