If time is money, and money is money too, then college is ridiculously expensive. Because it takes both a ton of time and a ton of money. Let me show you:
Massachusetts ~ $26,106 in 2004-5 to $40,748 in 2014-15
Connecticut ~ $25,877 in 2004-5 to $40,017 in 2014-15
D.C. ~ $25,431 in 2004-5 to $39,609 in 2014-15
California ~ $24,708 in 2004-5 to $38,511 in 2014-15
Maryland ~ $23,956 in 2004-5 to $38,291 in 2014-15
[Tuition and Fees by Sector and State Over Time – Trends in Higher Education – The College Board]
These are the top five increases in tuition cost of private four-year American colleges over the past ten years. Just tuition––not to mention room or board or anything else. Home sweet California is only number four and it’s still seen a $14,000 increase since 2005. $40,000 per year is a lot––four years worth adds up to $160,000. Is an education worth all that? John Henry Newman didn’t have those kinds of prices to tremble under, but he did explore the value of the university. Specifically, he defended liberal education, often the kind that these private four-year colleges offer. Was his defense convincing? Why participate in a classical liberal education? Why even go to college, for that matter? Well, those are different questions.
Since the latter is broader, I’ll start there. Why college at all? There are plenty of reasons: because it’s what people do, because I want to acquire particular skills, because I want a degree that will get me to a certain place, because I want to learn to live independently, because I’m drawn to a particular place or program, because I’m looking for an experience, or maybe because I don’t know what I’m doing with my life (guilty as charged). These are just the first that come to mind––if you ask undergrads why they came to their school, I don’t doubt you’ll get any number of different answers, far more than these few possibilities. I’d be willing to bet that a lot of my peers came to college seeking certain skills or credentials for their future careers. I’m not the biggest fan of that reason for choosing college, but it seems to me that the various answers could all be good in various situations. Because of this, the question requires us as Christians to approach such decisions with Holy-Spirit-guided discernment.
But regarding the first question––why participate in a classical liberal education (like the one I’ve been partaking in)––Newman and I have much to say. There are a few main answers to the question, a few main reasons why classical liberal education is worthwhile.
The first is perhaps the most widely-appealing reason: usefulness. Liberal education, Newman argues, is highly practical––but not specifically practical. It gives someone the internal equipment to do any job excellently:
“…general culture of mind is the best aid to professional and scientific study… the man who has learned to think and to reason and to compare and to discriminate and to analyze, who has refined his taste, and formed his judgment, and sharpened his mental vision, will not indeed at once be a lawyer… or an engineer… but he will be placed in that state of intellect in which he can take up any one of the sciences or callings… with an ease, a grace, a versatility, and a success, to which another is a stranger.”
(The Idea of a University, 118)
Liberal education makes the mind stronger, healthier. Newman talks often about this “culture”––he uses the agrarian word deliberately––we’re meant to think of growing, flourishing plant life, a fruitful crop. Culture of the mind produces a kind of versatility, a broadness of mentality that allows me to adapt to various environments and do many different kinds of work well.
This is the kind of growth that the great books program I’m in fosters. We’ve spent countless hours reading the classics, discussing them, and writing about them. How is that useful? Well, discussing lots of old books that often have only very distant bearing on today has really challenged me to listen. These are not instruction books––they are not giving me any information that appears immediately useful––and my peers discussing them with me are no experts. Most of our interpretations are usually lacking in lots. We often miss the mark. It’s been a challenge for me to consider the potential in what my peers observe and assert, how their thoughts may be more accurate than mine.
I came into college convinced that my particular framework for interpreting the world and the Bible and literature was the right one. I thought that any deviations from my views, any other possibilities that others might voice, were essentially misguided, often laughably so. But when you’re forced to listen to a diverse array of people talk about their interpretations and ideas for more than six hours a week––not to mention being confronted with the ideas of a brilliant author whose work has stood the test of time––you start to healthily question your own ideas. At least I did. And from that place of questioning I began to plant my old flags (or new ones I had developed from the questioning) deeper and firmer. That rootedness enabled me to start learning how to articulate my own values and beliefs and thoughts. Liberal education trained me to hold loosely the non-ultimate ideas and to hold fast the essential ones. It taught me to listen first and speak second.
Speaking of second, the second reason liberal education is worthwhile is contingent on the setting in which it takes place. Newman’s university was––and my own liberal education is––a communal endeavor. Newman makes clear that what he calls a ‘living education’ can only exist through community. He casts this vision epically:
“When a multitude of young men, keen, open-hearted, sympathetic, and observant, as young men are, come together and freely mix with each other, they are sure to learn one from another, even if there be no one to teach them; the conversation of all is a series of lectures to each, and they gain for themselves new ideas and views, fresh matter of thought, and distinct principles for judging and acting, day by day. . . . I am but saying that that youthful community will constitute a whole, it will embody a specific idea, it will represent a doctrine, it will administer a code of conduct, and it will furnish principles of thought and action. It will give birth to a living teaching, which in course of time will take the shape of a self-perpetuating tradition.” (Idea of University, 105-106)
Verbosity aside, Newman has a point: young people coming together to learn under the guidance of teachers will also learn from each other, perhaps in a richer, more dynamic, longer-lasting way. While I don’t remember even close to half the lectures I’ve heard at college (and I’ve heard some pretty fantastic ones), I won’t forget the ways my peers have taught me––their stimulating influence has become ingrained in my mind and heart, shaping me intellectually and personally, even spiritually.
The third reason is perhaps the hardest for many of us to consider legitimate. Newman, however, definitively names it one of the pillars of the university:
“Knowledge is capable of being its own end. . . . further advantages accrue to us and redound to others by its possession… but, independent of these, we are satisfying a directneed of our nature in it very acquisition… Knowledge… is valuable for what its very presence in us does for us after the manner of a habit, even though it be turned to no further account, nor subserve any direct end.” (The Idea of a University, 78-79)
He asserts that knowledge is valuable in and of itself. This idea is not a particularly strong selling point for southern Californians I know, maybe not even for many Americans in general. But, to generalize even further, it might just be a human thing. There don’t seem to be too many things people do for their own sake: food, friendship, painting, music. I’m sure there are more, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the things we generally tend to think of as ends in themselves could be counted on one hand. And Newman’s saying knowledge is one of them. It’s valuable, and not because it helps you do something else or because it gets you anything––it does get you lots of things and helps you do much more than you’d be able to do without it, but that’s not what makes it good. It’s inherently good. Intrinsically valuable. Why pursue knowledge? Well, why play a song? It satisfies an innate human need that nothing else does.
I mentioned that this might be the hardest of the reasons for us to accept. Part of this may have to do with southern Californian culture––I think we tend to gravitate to things that serve ends we think are worthwhile. Maybe this is even true of western culture at large. To put it crudely, we like things that get us what we want. And we may not put a lot of stock in knowledge if it was useless. Since it’s not, we do put some stock in it. But if we do this, we’re still missing what Newman highlights as the primary worth of knowledge––its ‘useless’ goodness, its value in and of itself. If we put stock in knowledge because it gets us other things, we’re not viewing it rightly, according to Newman––we’re not seeing it as an end worth pursuing for its own sake.
I wonder whether this takes the kind of simple, intuitive understanding that can’t be taught. Here’s where I’ll hypothesize. Recognizing knowledge’s inherent worth may not be something we can be taught. Just based on my own experience, I think it may be the kind of truth that has to be felt. I can verbally assent to its truth, but ascribing certain words to it is mere expression––I want to say that the substance is my excitement about it. I just want knowledge. Why? Because it’s good. I’m sure there are arguments for the idea that knowledge is a good in and of itself, but Newman simply asserts this is the case more than he provides rational arguments for why it is. And I approach it similarly in my own scholarship: I don’t know how to explain that knowledge is good in and of itself or why it’s an end worth pursuing for its own sake, but my guts and bones tell me so.
Knowledge, for Newman (especially the liberal kind), is not a means to an end––but it also kind of is. At least, it’s a means to an end in the same way that art is a means to an end. Hear Newman’s metaphor:
“Why do you take such pains with your garden…? You see to your walks and turf and shrubberies… not as if you meant to make an orchard of the one, or corn or pasture land of the other, but because there is a special beauty in all that is goodly in wood, water, plain, and slope, brought all together by art into one shape, and grouped into one whole. Your cities are beautiful, your palaces, your public buildings, your territorial mansions, your churches; and their beauty leads to nothing beyond itself. . . . in like manner there is a beauty, there is a perfection, of the intellect.” (The Idea of a University, 90)
So it’s not only knowledge that’s intrinsically good––it’s beauty of intellect too. But the way to a beautiful intellect is the path of knowledge. Except that, even to say that acquiring knowledge is “the way to” intellectual beauty might be misleading––for Newman, the two might even be the same thing. Why seek knowledge? Well, why tend a garden?