When I was 8 years old, my parents took my brother and I to Euro Disney. In typical French fashion, the day we arrived at the theme park, the characters were on a wage strike.
At the magical hour of 5 pm, however, all characters would come out to sign autographs and take pictures. At 5 pm, I was right there waiting to get my hug from Mickey. As the door opened, I saw the man behind Mickey’s mask putting out a cigarette before reapplying his black shiny ears.
The day I graduated from college felt eerily similar to the day I found out Mickey Mouse was a chain smoker; disappointment consumed me.
There has been great debate this year over what the role of elite colleges should be. Earlier this summer, William Deresiewicz's incendiary article, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League” published in The New Republic captured our attention.
I’ve recently finished his latest book, “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life,” which more thoroughly weaves through his argument.
Chapter five of his book, titled, “What Is College For?” should be mandatory reading for any incoming freshman. Mr. Deresiewicz makes a captivating argument on behalf of those who believe the purpose of going to any college is to start building self-identify, or individual “moral purpose,” as David Brooks describes it here.
I argue that college should be a place where one learns how to learn, where one learns how to examine unexamined mental models which ultimately result in a better understanding of “the self.”
Others like Joshua Rothman of The New Yorker have argued that the discussion should be less about “the role” of college, and more around the implications of “modernity” on us as people.
Mr. Rothman condescendingly opines that “Proust is hard to teach, in part, because 21-year-olds have barely had time to forget anything.”
Perhaps Mr. Rothman has forgotten what it is like to not be cynically jaded; however, his review demonstrates the perspective of those who find colleges to be victims of “times-are-a-changin’.”
The truth of what college is for has never changed, even if its form has become commoditized. What is true today, was true when Plato opened The Academy; the one institution whose mission should remain unaffected regardless of time period should be colleges.
A developed meritocracy, or the prevalence of commercial ethos in higher education, are strong forces, but weak excuses for the loss of (moral) value of an elite American college education.
The problem with elite colleges as they exist today is that they are not colleges at all. They are first-job incubators. (Note that I didn’t even give them the benefit of calling them career incubators.)
I found college to be a boring and intellectually unstimulating exercise. I landed a prestigious accounting job and received a degree from a top tier university while exerting minimal intellectual effort. Mind you that is not a reflection of my IQ; it reflects how little beyond the ability to pay is required to receive a degree from an elite institution.
A high tuition does not equal a quality academics, nor intellectual rigor.
Before landing on my feet, I would go through the disillusionment of my first job, a depression and an existential crisis. The emptiness of the shell leftover from college now plagued me.
Yet that same casing forced me to hibernate inside of myself to uncover who I was at my core, what I was without any pre-existing mental models, and what I craved without any subliminal influences.
Only once I had been stripped bare could I start rebuilding myself from the ground up. My “elite” college education should have afforded me an opportunity to undergo this same process in a safe space, rather than on my own.
Could I have made a greater attempt at finding professors and classes that quenched my desire to learn? Yes, I could have. Did the system encourage me or make it conducive to finding said opportunities? No, it did not.
The mission of today’s elite higher education institutions should shift from first job placement (which it is doing poorly) to preparing the self for life (career included).
A year ago I quit my cozy, well-paid corporate job to become a career coach for Millennials. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of having employers share with me what their greatest challenges are when hiring Millennials. I hear it all the time, that college graduates these days aren’t ready to join the workforce.
They’re entitled, and they want to go straight to the top, but employers are inherently part of the problem. If elite colleges are providing the supply of “talent,” there must be a demand for major-centric, gold-star résumé, on-paper superstars.
A business major and three summer internships does not automatically a good candidate make (particularly if the Millennial built a résumé around a major about which he or she doesn’t even enjoy learning).
If employers want more ready-for-the-real-world college graduates, they need to re-think their recruitment criteria and push colleges to get back in touch with their original mission. The supply provides what the demand requests.
I do not believe one should have a full understanding of self and soul by graduation; that is not my point. My point is elite colleges should be elite, not in its prohibitive cost of tuition and superficial metrics, but rather, in its unique understanding of the value of the “selves” that inhabit its walls and walk its campuses.
The “elite-ness” should come from the unique opportunity colleges provide students to question old (and new) unexamined mental models and develop their own. We should redefine “elite colleges” to describe those that celebrate the individual selves of their students above all else.
We must acknowledge and accept that as individuals and contributing members of society, we are capable of relating and understanding others, only after understanding our own selves.
And finally, to the future parental versions of us Millennials, the greatest responsibility ultimately will fall on us. We must knit our disappointment with and betrayal by the modern higher education system as a scarlet letter onto our chests so that we may never forget what we want for our own children.
Perhaps by the time we are parents, the system will not have changed. That is not unlikely, and if that’s the case, I have hope that we will bring our own experiences to the conscience of our smart, ambitious children.
If we can be the forbearers of a world where every student goes to college for the noble purpose of learning, we will have done ourselves and our society the ultimate service. We’d be maximizing intellectual capital by minimizing intellectual waste.
We’d be doing for our children what we always wished we could do have done for ourselves.