Why Go To University if You Don’t Understand What It’s For?

Why Go To University if You Don’t Understand What It’s For? February 19, 2015

There was an article in my school’s student newspaper, in which a student who wished to remain anonymous, self-identifying only as an accounting major, said that they sneak out early from required cultural events, and that they have never been to one that they enjoyed. I decided to blog about it, but also to submit most of what I wrote here as a comment on the website.

First, let me say that I am not convinced that the student is being honest. If you cannot find a single musical event on campus, a single debate or discussion, a single movie or other kind of cultural event, that you enjoy, there is something wrong with you, or at least with the way you are approaching things.

But you need not enjoy every cultural event you go to. University education should also be enabling you to appreciate kinds of artistic creation that you may not personally enjoy. Certain musical styles – like country or hip-hop – are not my personal preferences. But I could go to a concert and appreciate the musicianship.

What disturbed me most about what this student said, however, was not the ridiculous claim to be unable to enjoy any cultural event. What disturbed me is that this student does not know why he or she is at university, and is trying to fake their way through.

Students exhibit the same attitudes at times in relation to reading in classes. Their thinking is that, if they can get the gist of a piece of literature from Spark Notes, and it lets them answer questions on a test, then that is good enough.

There is a fundamental misunderstanding at work here too. The point of reading great literature is not to be able to answer questions about plot points. The point of reading great literature is the life-transforming effect that literature has on one’s life.

Sometimes by making the focus on quizzes and testing, we may give the wrong impression about what is important. But in many instances, the reason we are quizzing and testing is to ensure that literature is being read, music is being listened to, and other crucial experiences are being undergone.

Perhaps a change is needed. But how else can we weed out of our universities students who are trying to fake their way through, and who don’t embrace what is the only good reason for them to be there, and to be spending as much money as they are in order to do so?

These people are going to go out into the working world, and when their employer sends them to a cultural event to schmooze with important clients, and they yawn and say they wish they were somewhere else, and lose the contract, the employer isn’t just going to fire them. They are going to question the value of the education that Butler provides. Students like this cheapen the value of a Butler degree for everyone. And so perhaps we should spend more time trying to get this message across to students, and encourage them to police themselves more?

But the very notion of these being matters to “police” – as though the experiences one has as a student are a chore rather than a privilege – suggests that there is far more work that needs to be done in helping students to understand why they are on campus at all, and why they are at a university with a strong liberal arts foundation rather than at a vocational training college.

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  • Gary

    “An article in my school’s student newspaper…”
    Ahhh, in my day, editors of my student newspaper were fired (actually replaced), for protesting the Vietnam war with anti-war articles. And some students were in school specifically to avoid the cultural requirement of visiting Vietnam in person. Funny how the draft in those days, and the lack of a draft today, change student priorities. Sitting in a nice comfortable chair, listening to a cultural event, sounds pretty good to me. Beats sitting behind a barbed wire encampment in Southwest Asia, getting your culture first hand.

  • Ian

    The student isn’t there for the wrong reasons. The student knows full well why they have to go to college. They need the slip of paper that allow them to go onto what’s next. Without that would students really go into debt for the next 10-20 years in order to be exposed to Woolf, Adams and Strauss, who’s work can be accessed for comparatively nothing?

    The rhetoric from universities, particularly in light of the gathering velocity of the movement to not go to college, particularly among tech folks, seems hopelessly naive to me.

    Answering the question of what is worth (say) $60,000 and 4 years, other than being the gatekeepers to a job, is important. Liberal arts particularly struggles because it can’t claim “direct knowledge and expertise in a field of work”. But the idea that it gives you the ability to not yawn at the opera is a little thin, don’t you think?

    I don’t get the sense that your response would convince many. Even with my warm feeling towards higher education, I’m not sure it really convinces me.

    • I don’t think that not yawning at the opera is the point at all. And that is the risk we run when we try to show the on-the-job relevance of becoming a well-rounded person. Becoming broadly educated makes you more likely to succeed, to adapt, and to do whatever job you end up doing better than you otherwise would have. But is that the only reason to become educated? Isn’t the fact that becoming broadly educated usually leads people to have more well-rounded lives and experiences which they therefore find more rewarding also a good justification? And can we focus on that as long as people are dismissing parts of the education as supposedly not directly relevant to their specific career aims?

      • Ian

        I think education is valuable for its own sake. But look around your classes, do you think the reason it is almost entirely 19-2x year olds is because that group happen to realise the value of education for its own sake? Quite the opposite, I think. They’re there because universities are positioned as the gatekeepers to their future lives.

        Imagine a situation in which accreditation and university education were decoupled. Where you could, for a few hundred dollars, undergo a weeklong assessment on your level of competency, which would accredit you for a job. A Professional Competency Test (PCT). Imagine this is the only piece of paper that matters.

        Imagine further that universities positioned themselves as a way to achieve this competency. You get all these benefits, cultural events, world-class scholars, etc, and at the end we’re pretty sure you’ll sail your PCT. Cost $60,000

        But there are other ways to do it. You could cram for it, of course. Or go be a free intern at a company doing what you want to do, or use $40,000 in loans to start your own business, or join the Army, or a kibbutz, all of which build other incredible life skills and may help you pass your PCT.

        In that imagined world, where universities didn’t hold the keys to accreditation, where the name of the university on their CV didn’t hold out prospects of better employment, how may students do you think would choose to pay $60,000 to come to your school for 4 years? And conversely, what proportion of the people who would save up and come to your school would do it for the love of the subject, for the desire to be more well rounded, and to enjoy their lives in more rich ways? How many of them would likely be older?

        Do you see what I’m saying? Of course education is valuable,and it is better to be richer culturally, and of course four years of training in thinking and reading is going to make you better fit for work than not, but those have got to be held against the fact that students don’t have a lot of choice. At least they perceive they don’t. They come to you, very often, because you’re the best name on the slip of paper they can afford / attain. To say that is the ‘wrong reason’ for them to come is to be rather patronizing, when universities aren’t in any rush to give up their accreditation hegemony.

        • I think that one can engage in lifelong learning, and that a dedicated person can give themselves all the content – cultural, textual, and otherwise – that a university offers, even without going to university. What students are paying for is the privilege of dedicating a number of years of their life to getting that lifelong education at the outset, and being able to gain employment, because employers find students who have a university education more valuable than ones who do not. If employers did not value what students get from a university education, no one would be paying for it. And the student who is trying to get the degree without the educational experience is basically trying to dupe their future employer. It is highly unethical.

          That students may not fully understand that means that they are committing to something without appreciating what makes it valuable, why it is that it can lead to more gainful employment. I am more surprised when parents not only don’t do more to help their children understand, but when they actually give the impression themselves that the point of university is to get some narrowly-defined skills for a specific job.

          Few of today’s graduates will fit nicely into a slot in a job that they will never leave or change thereafter. Acquiring the ability to change and adapt and learn is the most crucial element a student can get from higher education in our time, in my opinion.

          • Ian

            I’m not sure you answered my questions directly there.

            If employers did not value what students get from a university education, no one would be paying for it.

            I’ve run several business, and employed many people, I’m not sure this is quite true. The degree requirement is more of a basic insurance policy against incompetents. And not a very successful one, unfortunately. The bigger the company, the more processes go in behind HR, the more this locks companies into the same accreditation bottleneck.

            Here’s another thought experiment. Imagine two candidates for a job. One had done 4 years at Butler and got an okay GPA on their BA. The other had spent the same money working around the world for 4 years, learning languages, going to concerts and plays, and writing a small book about their experiences. Which sounds like the better employee. Why do you think the second person would feel like, if they went travelling, they’d better just do it for a year, and then settle down to get their degree?

            Also you keep calling it a privilege. I hope you’re using that to mean ‘excellent value for money’, because if not it sounds very… entitled.

          • That is indeed what I meant by “privilege,” but of course, I think that other kinds of privilege can stand in the way of appreciating this privilege. Thank you for pointing out the two possible meanings of the word.

            I would much prefer a person who engaged in active lifelong learning in demonstrable ways to one who clearly did the bare minimum in a campus setting. But the practicality of the matter is that it takes a complex portfolio to demonstrate that one has done such learning, and even then some aspects may be unprovable. How do you demonstrate the extent of your reading? A degree is, among other things, an attempt to provide a way of demonstrating that one has engaged in this kind of educational experience.

          • Ian

            You’re getting some other push back on this article, so I won’t try to hog your time in responding too much.

            I agree with the point in the last sentence, definitely. A degree is shorthand for a bunch of portfolio skills (or should be, in practice, you still have to root around for those skills, because graduates often won’t have them, despite their degrees).

            We come back to the idea of decoupling accreditation. If there was some other way of showing the skill portfolio, not involving participation in degree programs, I think that would have a negative effect on university enrollment. We’re seeing that at the moment in tech and entrepreneurship.

            So I can’t help but hear it grate when you say from your position of hegemony that people are doing it wrong if they are doing it for the piece of paper that a) they need, and b) you control.

          • R Vogel

            ‘or should be, in practice, you still have to root around for those skills, because graduates often won’t have them, despite their degrees’

            Right? Sadly we have been forced to resort to testing applicants on certain skills before considering them since the degree is no indication they can actually do anything.

          • Perhaps I am naive in believing employers who tell the university that they value the kind of education we offer, grounded in the liberal arts, more than purely skill-oriented vocational training.

            But at any rate, I am less frustrated with students who come to campus not entirely clear on what makes this experience valuable, than I am with students who actively try to avoid finding out what the value is by cheating and faking their way through.

          • R Vogel

            I think you are being a bit idealistic here. Even 25 years ago when I was in uni the vast majority of people were there for a degree, not to learn anything specific, just to get a degree because that is what is necessary to get into certain fields today. That is the system we have set up though. In my career the Certification I hold suddenly began requiring a college degree a few years back in addition to the 10-18 months of coursework and 10 hr exam. Why? No idea. But now someone who may have gone into this work, which does not require a college degree, suddenly finds themselves barred from reaching a certain level. The result: A slew of more people going to college for the wrong reasons.

        • R Vogel

          Great points and germane to the example in question. An accounting major presumably is going into accounting. After school they will likely sit for the certification exam. If they could pay for a study course to pass the certification without uni, does it affect their ability to do their job? I have always thought that we really need a 2 track post-secondary educational system, one designed for academics and the other for those planning to go into career. It is rather presumptuous to believe that everyone who wants to go into a career has some desire for self enrishment (I really want to quote Tyler Durden here, but will resist!), or at least self enrichment of the sort forced on them by uni curriculum committee.

          • Ian

            Right, and I balk a little that it is ‘self-enrichment’ in that case.

            My experience of graduates is that it is a very mixed bag. And since they all went through (ostensibly similar) degree programs, I find it hard to believe that the quality among the quality graduates was a function of the degree.

            This I think is what leads to qualification inflation, where once it took a few courses, then it took a degree, now you really need a masters to compete. Yet even then. most applicants aren’t that good.

            I love my university experience, and my university education. I wouldn’t swap it for the world. But it feels like something is wrong in the presumption that this is always, only, how one qualifies for professional life.

          • I went to college. My brother did not. He started his own business and makes more money than I do. Is there a group of jobs or job types that require degrees where none should really be required?

          • Aren’t you describing trade schools and associates degrees?

          • R Vogel

            Trade school, perhaps. But an expanded one that included things like business school, accounting, finance, really anything that is more directed toward career than pure academia. We don’t make certified auto mechanics take Introduction to Classical Music as part of their curriculum, why do we make accountants? Or middle managers? Let the University be about pure academic/scholarly pursuits and trade school, if you want to call it that, be about career.

          • I think there’s a pretty good model for what you’re describing at Texas State Technical College:

            http://www.tstc.edu/frontpage/

            They offer two year programs and associates degrees, but students can also simply take programs that offer certification in a number of different fields.

          • R Vogel

            Technical schools are exactly what I have in mind but I think we need to go the full monte. Move all career related courses there and remove the perception that a BA is somehow superior to other educational programs. If you want to be an accountant, for instance, take program that teaches you accounting, not accounting plus a bunch of unrelated things with a hefty price tag. I think you can make the case that an historian is a better historian with an understanding of other academic subjects. I think that case is harder when you are talking about an accountant.

          • Employers tell us that they value employees wit that breadth of education more than ones with purely vocational training. And graduates regularly communicate that the broad education gave them the flexibility to turn their majors into careers they did not anticipate, when circumstances meant they could not pursue the career they assumed they would. And so I assume that these are valid reasons to pursue one’s vocational aims at a university with a strong liberal arts core and foundation.

          • R Vogel

            ‘Employers tell us that they value employees wit that breadth of education more than ones with purely vocational training’

            I think this is hooey for (2) reasons:

            What I am concerned about as an employer is people who can do the job. As a hiring manager I can tell you that a college degree has very little correlation with that. In the last decade we have hired and let go about half a dozen college graduates who simply could not do the work. All the while we have 3 non-college graduates who are our most valued employees. Requiring a degree is more about thinning the applicant pool rather than improving it. As I mentioned in another comment, we have actually had to design tests to give to applicants in order to make sure that they can do the basics required from the position. It seems ludicrous that I have to test a college graduate on whether they can write an appropriate business email or letter, but I do.

            Technical schools, as far as I know, are not really designed to be equivalent to a 4 yr programs so it is not really a fair comparison. If you had a technical school offer a program for accounting, whose curriculum focused only on those subjects relevant to the accounting profession, then we could better compare. In order to get that course of study, however, you have to go to a 4 yr school which includes probably 2 yrs of coursework that is largely irrelevant and cultural offerings that may not be desired coupled with a hefty price tag. (I worked 3 jobs through college so I didn’t really have the luxury of taking part in all the extra-curricular stuff. I would have much preferred a lower tuition). Obviously 4 yr schools are huge beneficiaries of this system, just look at the growth of tuition over the last 40 years, so they will fight it for all its worth. What would happen to 4 yr enrollment is there was another option at a fraction of the time and price that focused on preparing you for a career?

            As far as student experience, a Technical school that focused on career skills would possess everything they need to be successful in various occupations. Whether or not they have read Plato’s Republic would have no bearing on that. There is also nothing that says a student desiring a pursue a more broad educational experience could not attend a 4yr Institution. They would simply have a the choice. Currently they do not.

          • I do think that universities need to re-raise their standards. Grade inflation, pressure from athletics for students to pass, and other factors have contributed to unacceptably lowered standards in many areas.

            I think a lot may depends on the job in question. But I think your response also assumes that students have the luxury of preparing specifically for the job you will be offering, which they want to get, and will not have to have the flexibility, creativity, and lifelong learning skills to find a way of utilizing their higher education in one or more jobs that were not their first choice, or which they didn’t foresee themselves doing when they were students.

            You can do lots of jobs without reading the Republic. Technical colleges offer degrees and diplomas of the sort you mention. What I discuss with students when I teach the Republic are topics which are relevant less to their career choice than their participation in society in a broader sense. What is the nature of justice? Why doesn’t Socrates think that democracy is the ideal society? Is our society really a democracy, or is it an oligarchy? What is the nature of education? Why do we want the complex city with all it entails rather than the simple life that Socrates would have happily stopped at?

          • R Vogel

            ‘I think a lot may depends on the job in question.’

            I would actually say to the degree in question, or the goals of the person pursuing the degree, keeping in mind your post revolved around a comment from someone pursuing an accounting degree. I am specifically thinking of degrees that are directed toward the job force. Accounting, business, finance, etc. Even if you don’t go directly into these fields the skills from them are largely portable into different fields.

            Don’t get me wrong. I love Plato’s Republic. I studied history and philosophy as an undergrad with no real thought of how it would impact my future career. But that is not why a large number of people go to college. They go to get a degree which is the ticket to a certain range of careers. The price of college has historically been justified by the higher earning potential of graduates, but I think as the requirement proliferates and tuition increases we are quickly, if not already, reaching a break-even. I think we have already moved well beyond that point for most liberal arts degrees.

  • Sam Doe

    Dr. McGrath, one need only to examine the demographic of Butler students to understand what’s going on here. The vast majority are privileged Chicago-area young adults. To many of these people, they are not at Butler for an education. They are there for an experience. They pay to be entertained by basketball games and Greek parties. They go to Butler to get a degree, meaning they are willing to put forth the minimal effort to “earn” one, and they’ll pay the money required to receive it. Many of Butler’s students simply want to extend their adolescents before they go back home to work for money and business, not as a life long commitment to learning or progress. And of course they need their degree to get a job; lord knows you can’t do anything without one these days. This is the mindset of most new students and many exiting students (not to say that this mindset won’t change over time.. I’m not saying that Butler grads/students aren’t capable of growth).

    Butler enables this mind set. Although Butler lists itself as a liberal arts school, it’s evident where its true interests are. Butler caters to the incoming demographic, mostly business bound youth. Maybe if I could see some numbers, I wouldn’t believe my own argument. But as a student there, I had the impression that the LAS college was only there to provide the core courses for all the students in the business and pharmacy (most of which go on to do retail pharmacy for the money) programs.

    My point is simply that Butler students don’t want to learn. They want to have fun and insure that they will be able to make lots of money in the future.

    I’m honestly sorry for the LAS professors at Butler. The students you have to work with, most of the time, aren’t worth your time. I’d love to see Butler go out of its way to change its demographic. I’d love to see students invest their time in other-than-Greek orgs/events, but they aren’t as fun. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Greek orgs are a bad thing – that’s an entirely different discussion. But that said, the Greek communities are bubbles. They certainly promote philanthropy and generosity towards select causes/institutions. But they do not support cultural inquiry and experience or intellectual development. Keeping test banks and forcing study hours don’t count.

    Dr. McGrath, I couldn’t agree more with your statement about poor students tarnishing the reputation of Butler University. I am personally not proud of Butler because of who I’ve seen there. If I were an employer, it would take a lot of investigation before I would be comfortable hiring a Butler grad.

    • Thank you for sharing this. As a faculty member in LAS, I rarely get to hear from students who have graduated in other majors and learn what their perspectives are, looking back on their experience. If you have any thoughts on what Butler could do differently to help change the climate and perspective of students who clearly come to Butler already viewing the reason they are there in ways that are at odds with the ideals of most universities, I would love to hear them. I’m not sure how much things will change, but we won’t know unless we try!

      • Sam Doe

        I’d love to give some kind of feedback on how to solve such problems. Maybe solutions exist; I don’t know. That said, I don’t believe the University wants solutions.

        I’ve proposed that Butler is facing a systemic problem from my point of view. Perhaps you and many other LAS professors at Butler share my opinion. This may be the case, but the majority of the University’s students, faculty, and staff don’t share our point of view. The university, as it is, is working fine.

        Butler has found its niche in the market of universities out there. That market primarily being for privileged youth from Northern Indiana and the Chicago area. The university markets and sells the types of degrees these people are looking for (education, business, and fast-track medical degrees) all for the purpose of settling down into a family/life with stable finances.

        Essentially, the clients leave happy, having received their degree, some resume boosters, and a social network which was developed from a fun time away at college. The university is happy because it gets to boast about it’s solid programs – in everything that the university was NOT founded on.

        Changing, or rather re-branding Butler, would be kind of like overhauling Mcdonald’s. People go to McDonald’s because it’s juicy, cheap, and quick – not because it’s healthy or supports a positive lifestyle. Similarly, people go to Butler because they know they can get a ticket to an easy future and have fun doing it. Mcdonald’s knows it’s target market, and so does Butler. Why would either institution change its foundation?

        If Butler really wanted to become the LAS school that it calls itself. It would need to change its clientele, because right now most of the students put their money into NOT the LAS college. It would need to find better support for its LAS college. Develop a fine arts program. Connect with the actual city of Indianapolis, instead of just sitting within its “Butler Bubble.” This includes forming real relationships with institutions like the IMA, any of the surrounding schools, the Indianapolis refugee organizations, etc – where students can actually work with these people. It just blows my mind how accessible finance and marketing internships are at Butler, but you can’t get any help and you never hear about working for social service agencies, arts institutions, libraries, museums, or anything related to the humanities or social sciences. I could go on, but you get the idea.

        LAS needs to connect students with opportunities.

  • Attending college is a rite of passage. As such, I suppose that it doesn’t actually require a reason.

    In the sciences and engineering, the students mostly do know why they are there. I don’t think it at all surprising that this is not true for the humanities.

  • Dan

    I studied at a liberal arts jesuit university. They really try to teach you to become a whole person and not just a corporate drone. And while in that school I immersed myself in liberal arts and humanities (though I took a science-y major). I even took four mandatory classes on catholic theology which I aced even though I was and still am an atheist. After graduation I promptly forgot pretty much all of Shakespeare except for a few sonnets and Hamlet’s soliloquy. I understand why they try to make me to appreciate the richness of human creativity but life outside the ivory tower is different Professor McGrath.

    I do not go to the opera, and rarely watch musicals though I enjoy doing so. I go to music concerts but only for music that I enjoy with or without a college class telling me so. I read a lot of books but almost all are non-fiction (everything from Richard Dawkins to NT Wright, Simon Singh to Malcolm Gladwell). I do not care for high art, then and now.

    I enjoy life just as much as any literary hedonist or lifestyle epicurean, but I do so at my own terms and with my tastes.

  • The blog post is now also a letter to the editor: https://thebutlercollegian.com/?p=19699