About three weeks ago Mark Edmundson published an interesting essay in the Oxford American. The essay centers around two key points: A college education requires discovering oneself, and a college education should be used to find one’s dream career rather than to pursue a lucrative paycheck. Doing this in the at the modern university, however, is not easy:
If you want to get a real education in America you’re going to have to fight—and I don’t mean just fight against the drugs and the violence and against the slime-based culture that is still going to surround you. I mean something a little more disturbing. To get an education, you’re probably going to have to fight against the institution that you find yourself in—no matter how prestigious it may be...To get it, you’ll need to struggle and strive, to be strong, and occasionally even to piss off some admirable people.
Edmunson’s message is certainly the sort of thing that everybody wants to hear: study what you love rather than chasing dollars and everything will eventually work out. A soothing picture is painted of a young graduate who chooses elementary education over medicine but ultimately becomes a nationally known educator. Such opportunities are out there for those who pursue their deepest passions, while the alternative is to “get a TV for every room, buy yourself a lifetime supply of your favorite quaff, crank up the porn channel, and groove away” as a means to cope with the dreadful routine of one’s life.
Edmundson’s idealistic argument brushes aside the severe dilemma which today’s students face. For many, the choice is not merely between a well-paid career as a doctor and a middling one as an elementary educator. The choice instead is between having a career and possibly not having one at all. This plight is exemplified by America’s many young humanities Ph.D.’s. Pursuing what they love just as Edmunson suggests, thousands of America’s brightest individuals are instead emerging from years of post-graduate work to find a dreadful job market and the grim possibility they will be forced into subpar jobs (or even new careers) merely to cope with immense student loans. Edmundson’s denigration of money also overlooks the fact most people ultimately draw fulfillment from their families and hobbies; enjoying either is not helped by long-term poverty and debt. If a university education teaches anything, it’s that a job should not define who we are, and the life of the mind thrives well after the closing bell.
Similar (and better-put) thoughts on the state of the university were articulated by James Piereson in his September article for The New Criterion “What’s wrong with our universities?” See his piece here.