What’s the Point of College?: Mark Lilla on The Soldier, The Saint, The Sage and the Citizen

What is the point of college and university? There seem to be as many answers to that question as there are students and faculty, but here’s one explanation I find particularly important.

In April 2010 Mark Lilla (a professor of humanities, though a political scientist by training) delivered a lecture to all first-year undergraduates at Columbia University. Columbia is known for its “core” curriculum, a series of classes that all students at the college must take. The event was the final lecture of the students’ first year at college, and Lilla’s goal was to go back over all the texts that they’d read that year, drawing out common links between them.

Lilla’s lecture was broader than just that, for he reflected at the start on the reason why we go to college, and the reason we read all these books. College is not really about preparing for a specific career, or to maximise our potential post-graduation earnings. If that was the aim, attending college and studying the humanities is certainly not an efficient way to do it.

Instead, Lilla argues, we go to college because we have questions about what to do with our lives, and we need to explore all the ways we could live. He begins, however, by noting:

“Of course, that’s not at all what you told the admissions office on your application. You figured, correctly, that to be admitted you had to exude confidence about what Americans—and only Americans—call their life goals. And you had to demonstrate that you had a precise plan for achieving them. It was all bullshit. You know it, I know it. The real reason you were excited about college was because you had questions, buckets of questions, not life plans and powerpoint presentations.

Talking to my students, I have discovered that they’re far less concerned with getting what they want than figuring out just what it is that’s worth wanting.

But in our reading of so many books at university, we cannot help thinking about and exploring lives that we had never considered, and never even knew were possible:

“You’ve already encountered countless books… and you’ve encountered countless characters in them. And all of them, even the ones in the history books, are products of an author’s imagination. When we need them, our own imagination is stimulated in turn, and we are almost inevitably led to think, “What would it be like to live like this person, or that person? What would it be like to value what they value, pursue their goals, suffer their disappointments, experience their happiness?…

You’ve been observing human nature in action, and have even begun to recognise distinct human types who represent radically opposed ways to live. So you’re now ready to start reasoning about which of these lives, if any, are worth pursuing, and which might be the best for you or for anyone.”

What could be more important? And there’s a reason that college and university come at a very specific time in our lives, roughly between the ages of 18 and 22, when we need to determine what kind of life we find worth living before we get too caught up in the world of work.

Lilla’s description of college gets straight to the heart of the matter, and by bearing it in mind, no book at college should ever be boring—for every book presents lives that we could make our own, if we wished. His lecture in its entirety is worth watching:

On The Uses Of A Liberal Education: As “Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students”

Mark Edmundson Harper's On the Uses of a Liberal Education, as Lite Entertainment for Bored College StudentsIt is teacher evaluation day. The professor’s final spiel for the semester has just concluded, and they leave the classroom so we can sum up a semester’s worth of learning and frustration in a five minute questionnaire. “Please rank, on a scale of 1 to 5, how well this professor helped you to engage with course concepts.” Student translation: “Please rank, on a scale of 1 to 5, how annoyed you at times got with this class, how funny and relaxed the professor was, whether you’re satisfied with the grade you think they’ll give you, and don’t forget to take into account whether you’re having a good day today”. The reductionism of the activity extends to the point of absurdity, but perhaps teacher evaluation is, after all, merely the catharsis at the end of a tragedy. That tragedy is the failure of a given class to live up to the promise of a liberal education—a tragedy replayed in thousands of classrooms at hundreds of universities.

It doesn’t always happen like that. I’ve had fantastic classes that have challenged me in precisely the ways I think a liberal education should. But the experience of just “making it through” a class is one that everyone has, all too often—both students and professors.

In September 1997, Harper’s Magazine published a section titled “On The Uses Of A Liberal Education.” The section contained two essays, each making a very different point largely because of the very different perspectives from which the two authors looked at education. First was Mark Edmundson’s, which acerbically described liberal education as “Lite entertainment for bored college students”.

Edmundson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia, and his essay is written in the tone of a disgruntled traditionalist. Those are two positions that I should, technically, find it hard to relate to. And yet parts of the essay resonated. They resonated in the way they captured the promise of liberal education and its on-the-ground failure in too many classrooms at too many universities. But most importantly, the essay resonated in how it captured the individual responsibility of both students and professors to recapture what they believe a liberal education should be about.

Edmundson begins his essay with a picture that should be familiar:

“A college student getting a liberal arts education ponders filling out a questionnaire that includes an opportunity for him to evaluate his instructor. At times it appears that the purpose of his education is just to entertain him.”

I do wonder whether it is a mistake to set up liberal education as depending so heavily on the image of the classroom. The classroom is but one component of a real education, yet frequently Edmundson seems to talk about them as if all education happened in the class. Regardless, he uses this image, and what it means for professors, to explain how education and consumer culture have moved closer and closer together. When a student praises Edmundson for “presenting this difficult, important & controversial material in an enjoyable and approachable way”, he finds himself rejecting the complement.

“Thanks but no thanks. I don’t teach to amuse, to divert, or even, for that matter, to be merely interesting. When someone says she “enjoyed” the course — and that word crops up again and again in my evaluations — somewhere at the edge of my immediate complacency I feel encroaching self-dislike. That is not at all what I had in mind… I want some of them to say that they’ve been changed by the course. I want them to measure themselves against what they’ve read.

Consumer culture leads students to seek “enjoyable experiences” in their education. Admissions departments have become marketing departments, Edmundson muses, and he thinks its no surprise that students expect the pleasant, fun view of the college they had from the brochures to continue while they’re there. Students necessarily search in their education for what the marketing departments told them they were buying.

“Is it a surprise, then, that this generation of students — steeped in consumer culture before going off to school, treated as potent customers by the university well before their date of arrival, then pandered to from day one until the morning of the final kiss-off from Kermit or one of his kin — are inclined to see the books they read as a string of entertainments to be placidly enjoyed or languidly cast down? Given the way universities are now administered (which is more and more to say, given the way that they are currently marketed), is it a shock that the kids don’t come to school hot to learn, unable to bear their own ignorance? For some measure of self-dislike, or self-discontent — which is much different than simple depression — seems to me to be a prerequisite for getting an education that matters. My students, alas, usually lack the confidence to acknowledge what would be their most precious asset for learning: their ignorance.”

And from this, we get a vision for what liberal education should be about.

“The aim of a good liberal-arts education was once, to adapt an observation by the scholar Walter Jackson Bate, to see that “we need not be the passive victims of what we deterministically call “circumstances” (social, cultural, or reductively psychological-personal), but that by linking ourselves through what Keats calls an ‘immortal free-masonry’ with the great we can become freer — freer to be ourselves, to be what we most want and value.”

And then, a vision for what the world will look like if we don’t live up to liberal education’s ideal.

“What happens if we keep trudging along this bleak course? What happens if our most intelligent students never learn to strive to overcome what they are? What if genius, and the imitation of genius, become silly, outmoded ideas? What you’re likely to get are more and more one-dimensional men and women. These will be people who live for easy pleasures, for comfort and prosperity, who think of money first, then second, and third, who hug the status quo; people who believe in God as a sort of insurance policy (cover your bets); people who are never surprised. They will be people so pleased with themselves (when they’re not in despair at the general pointlessness of their lives) that they cannot imagine humanity could do better. They’ll think it their highest duty to clone themselves as frequently as possible. They’ll claim to be happy, and they’ll live a long time.”

It was the very end of Edmundson’s essay that struck me as most important. Where it was sometimes strange to relate to Edmundson’s disgruntled style and his position as a professor, I think his summing up places the burden squarely on every individual student and every professor for making their education what it should truly be about. And rightly so.

“Ultimately, though, it is up to individuals — and individual students in particular — to make their own way against the current sludgy tide. There’s still the library, still the museum, there’s still the occasional teacher who lives to find things greater than herself to admire. There are still fellow students who have not been cowed. Universities are inefficient, cluttered, archaic places, with many unguarded comers where one can open a book or gaze out onto the larger world and construe it freely. Those who do as much, trusting themselves against the weight of current opinion, will have contributed something to bringing this sad dispensation to an end.”

Edmundson’s essay presents that powerful statement of individual responsibility in education. This was what I disagreed most with Bill Deresiewicz on, when in his book Excellent Sheep he seems to place the burden of responsibility for liberal education on university administrators. I said then that I think the right tools for a proper education—a “self-inflicted wound” as Deresiewicz calls it—do exist at universities, but it is entirely for students to want them, to look for them and to use them.

Can New Zealanders and Australians Afford To Study at a US University?

When I’m asked about how one goes about studying at a US university, or at least one modelled on the American higher education system, I’m usually first asked something along the lines of: is “college” the same thing as “university”, and what is a liberal arts degree? I decided to start writing up my responses to these questions I get asked all the time, and I answered that first general question in my article A Guide for Non-Americans: What is “college” and how does it differ from university?

The second question people ask is often not even phrased as a question. It goes something along the lines of, “Oh, there’s no way I could afford to study in the US. It’s too expensive, and I’m not that rich.” The question embedded in that is, how do you afford it? Did you get a scholarship, or are you simply very wealthy?

The answer, to both of the above questions, is no. Well, mostly no. I have received a scholarship to study at Yale-NUS and for my time at Yale, but there’s still no chance I could afford to study there if that was the only financial support I’d received. So here’s a guide to how it works, and you should, for the most part, find reason to be pleased: if you are committed to working incredibly hard for a few years to gain admission to a top US university, the finances will work themselves out. Really.

If one of the first things you’ve done is looked at the fees listed on US college and university websites, most of us would indeed have reason to close our browsers, run a mile from the computer, and never again consider studying in America. Yale, for instance, says that the base cost of attendance for one year for an undergraduate in 2016-17 is USD$68,230. I emphasise: United. States. Dollars. At current exchange rates, that’s NZD$98,000 and AUD$93,000. Of those fees, USD$50,000 is the tuition cost, and the remainder is for room, board, and other expenses. I’m taking Yale as my example, but the numbers are really very similar for most universities as an international student (we aren’t eligible for any subsidies).

But unfortunately for those of us from countries outside the United States, things get even more expensive. Roundtrip flights from Wellington, New Zealand to New York, for instance, come to roughly NZD$2,500, and you’d be looking at doing that flight twice a year. The reality is you’re unlikely to stay in your room on campus for the entire semester, so you’re going to need money to cover other living expenses, maybe a couple of thousand per semester. Exchange rate differences can come to be truly scary—some of my friends have seen their cost of attendance double or even triple in the course of a year depending on how the exchange rate swings.

To put it simply: the sticker price for a year of study at a US university is going to be over $100,000, whether in Australian or New Zealand dollars. For a degree, then (four years at US universities), it’s going to come to roughly half a million NZ/AU dollars.

Before I get onto the details of how that amount is very rarely what you would be paying, here’s one brutal reality: only the top universities have the financial resources to subsidise the cost of your education. The middle band of US universities—the ones which in all likelihood you haven’t heard of—will not provide financial assistance to international students. This means that unless you can afford the full price of the education as above, you need to gain admission to one of the top universities to have your education subsidised. The Ivy League.

And what of the Ivies, the other top small liberal arts colleges, and international universities like Yale-NUS College and New York University in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai? What do they do differently? The key term you want to know is financial aid.

Here’s a statement taken directly from Yale’s page on financial aid:

“Yale admits students without regard to their ability to pay and meets 100% of demonstrated financial need. For all students. Without loans.”

Financial Aid at US UniversitiesRestated, this means that if you are admitted, Yale will then look at your family’s financial situation and make an offer of financial support that will make it feasible for you to attend. It’s not about taking out a loan. It’s simply a subsidy on the total cost of attendance, and the subsidy can vary from a few thousand dollars to 100% of the cost. Yale also states that “Families whose total gross income is less than USD$65,000 (with typical assets) are not expected to make a contribution towards their child’s Yale education. Over 10% of Yale undergraduate families have an Expected Family Contribution of $0.” In 2015-16, the average financial aid award amount was USD$43,989; in other words, the average award cut fees by almost two thirds.

I’m taking Yale’s statements here as examples, but most other top universities offer almost identically-worded policies. The immense endowments of these universities make these generous financial aid policies possible, where other universities are simply unable to offer them.

It’s disappointing that many immensely talented young New Zealanders don’t bother applying to top international universities each year simply because they assume it will be too expensive. I’ve had friends and acquaintances who had dismissed the idea of international study from the start because their parents had told them not to even think about it, without knowing about financial aid.

The hard part is getting in. It is hard, but not impossible. If you have the brain and the work ethic, gaining admission should be your only focus; you should not let concern of finances stand in your way.

If you haven’t already, I do encourage you to read my post on liberal arts colleges in the US. US higher education is unique for its focus on the liberal arts, which offer students an opportunity to figure out what you should do, before then going on to learn how to do it for postgraduate study. That’s very, very different to what our universities in this part of the world offer, and it’s an idea that I think we should take far more seriously.


Some links to additional information and examples are below.

Harvard’s financial aid information

Yale-NUS College’s financial aid information

The University: An Owner’s Manualby Henry Rosovsky

NZ Media on the BA Degree: “Bachelor of Bugger All”

The BA’s reputation has been progressively eroded – no-one seems to know exactly how or why. It became seen as the degree for people who didn’t know what they wanted to do. The degree for layabouts seeking fewer teaching hours. The degree for lightweights without the smarts to do anything else.

And then came the jokes: “What did the arts graduate say to the science graduate? ‘Would you like fries with that?’

In a world of high university fees and high youth unemployment, the acid of negativity seems to be finally etching its mark.

In the face of falling enrolments, Otago University plans to cut about 16 staff in five arts departments. Victoria University is restructuring its language departments, with job losses, after student numbers fell up to 30 per cent in five years. Auckland University arts enrolments have dived 9 per cent since 2010. Nationwide, arts deans are desperately talking up their degrees and reshaping their structure to make graduates more employable.

It’s one of the first questions prospective BA students ask Liz Medford: Is it going to get me a job?

The Victoria University careers manager has been dishing out advice for 29 years. She’s surveyed 300-odd employers since 1996 and their demands have barely changed – verbal and written communication, analysis, problem-solving, teamwork.

“The skills of a BA are just as useful today as they’ve ever been.”

What has changed is higher fees and parents and students opting for the security of a degree that appears more marketable. But there has to be time for exploration, she says.

Stuff.co.nz, “The university debate – a place for passion or a ticket to a job?”, 17 December 2016

As I’ve previously written, vocational or professional degrees are about how to do things—how to be a lawyer, or a doctor, or a businessperson—whereas an arts degree is about what you should do. The BA is about having time and space to explore intellectually so that you can then make a properly informed decision about the vocation you wish to commit to—which can then be studied at the postgraduate level. It’s an expensive use of time, to be sure—but it has always seemed to me far more expensive to wake up one day towards the end of a vocational degree, or even later, only to have worked out that that’s not what you want to do for the rest of your life.

That’s why I’m such a proponent of the US higher education system, because the BA and BSc are structurally built in as the only option for an undergraduate degree. It’s a real shame that articles like this one—in addition to propagating nasty generalisations and stereotypes—fail to point out alternative systems, taking ours as universal.