Intelligent people who hadn’t gone to college began to feel a great hole in their lives, and those who had gone could usually be relied upon to hide from them what is all too sadly the truth: they really haven’t missed all that much. Paul Goodman, the 1930s radical who became something of a guru during the student rebellions of the late 1960s and early ’70s, used to enjoy saying that all going to college meant was that in doing so a person showed how badly he or she wanted to succeed in society as currently constituted. Going to college entails a large expense, lots of useless work, and the acceptance of endless onerous, preposterous trivialities, all of which, Goodman liked pointing out, showed that any young man or woman who was willing to put up with this nonsense could be expected to put up with the even greater nonsense of boring and meaningless work later in life. College, in this view, functioned chiefly to turn out useful, moderately high-level drones, finely honed tools of capitalism.…Of course, undergraduate education is only ostensibly about producing the sound paper on T.S. Eliot or the Renaissance or the Reformation. What it’s really about, or at any rate is supposed to be about, is the development of young minds, teaching them how to think independently, how to combine common sense with proper skepticism, the whole given a fine texture by the attainment of an at first widened and later (after college, acquired on one’s own) greatly deepened culture. But what percentage of the 65 percent of Americans who regularly participate in one form or another of higher education do you suppose derive anything resembling such things from their education? I would set it at somewhere between 1 or 2 percent, though that may be too generous. Most people come away from college, happy souls, quite unscarred by what has gone on in the classroom. The education and culture they are presumably exposed to at college never lay a glove on them. This is the big dirty secret of higher education in America.This doesn’t mean that their having gone to college isn’t worth it. Not at all. On a strict accounting, a college education, expensively priced though it nowadays generally is, probably pays off as well as any investment. Endless studies show that young men and women who attend college earn hundreds of thousands of dollars more over a lifetime than those who, for one reason or another, do not go to college. Why should this be so? For the same reason that degrees in journalism, master’s degrees in business, and other (shall we politely say?) not strictly necessary degrees make for success: because, that is, people who have already paid for these overpriced appurtenances wish others to do so, forming a (not so) little group of those who have already pledged the fraternity.
I had an artist friend in high school who said he wanted to go to college even though he didn’t need it for his career plans, “just for the college experience”. (He wasn’t a drinker, or even overly social, so I guess he was referring to the intellectual aspect.) I think I know what he meant; I still enjoy looking through the course offerings that come in the mail from all the nearby colleges and daydreaming about possibly taking the classes that catch my eye if time and energy will ever allow. But dabbling in the odd class with no real remunerative potential would be good enough for me; I know too many people who invested four-to-eight years and tens of thousands of dollars into their education, only to end up with meaningless jobs they hate, a mountain of debt on their backs, and no capacity for intellectual curiosity or enjoyment anymore.