The Appropriate Rhetoric on the Purpose of a College Education

Since I was a young high schooler, I’ve felt uncomfortable with the way I am expected prepare for college, and, even in college, this fear has not subsided. I’ve never been able to shake off the pressure to fit myself into a mold to please future admissions officers or employers and subsequently felt rather disillusioned that the things I do are only meant to fill up lines on a resume rather than give myself anything else. Surely there are reasons why, for example, medical school admissions officers would want us to volunteer and gain leadership experience. There are definitely benefits and valuable things that we can get from extracurriculars, but those details don’t change the fact that there has been a distinct shift in the purpose of our education over the past several decades; we are turning the high school & college experiences away from learning how to grow as a person and towards providing a practical benefit. 

I will assert that, while an overemphasis on practical motives can be harmful, one does not need to obtain instant gratification of a deeper meaning at every moment of his/her life. In other words, we don’t have to make every decision in our lives with the burdensome thought that we are not pursuing these activities for the proper motives. When I spoke to one of my friends, an undergraduate majoring in Mathematics & Philosophy, he gave me some great insight on this issue. To find fulfillment in a certain activity, a person often relies on a “feeling” that he or she experiences when doing that activity. For example, when one is performing scientific research, he/she may be motivated by a satisfaction that he/she feels when analyzing data or looking for the right answers. But, when we look at this type of “feeling”, then the question of whether or not the activity that we are doing is only personal satisfaction. It’s just a feeling. Statements like “My research that I’m performing is meaningless” are similar to “I really like waffles.” The same way one does not desire waffles at every single moment, one does not have to obtain a feeling of satisfaction that one is finding a deeper meaning of research at every given moment.

This isn’t to suggest that the big questions of what a value of a college education has are meaningless nor that an individual’s self-guided search for meaning is meaningless. It’s still very important for individuals to analyze their own motives and act the appropriate way to ensure that, overall, their actions are well-justified from reasonable principles.

William Deresiewicz, English Instructor at Yale University, has written about much of the way undergraduates are taught to think and learn. In his book, “Excellent Sheep”, he describes how “our universities have become places to turn students into tunnel-visioned careerists, adept at padding their résumés and filling their bank accounts but unprepared to confront life’s most important questions.” (sauce). Deresiewicz also goes on to tell about how the shift away from the humanities and towards the more self-evidently “practical” subjects have caused us to lose sight of understanding how to think. He explains how college should be a time for self-discovery, when students can establish their own values and measures of success, so they can forge their own path. While putting a stronger emphasis on the humanities seems like a romantic goal and I do definitely think that undergraduates should appreciate the humanities more, I’m dubious that simply getting more students to major in English or History will strengthen our ability to learn how to think. Besides, it sounds pompous and myopic for me to insist that because I study the humanities, therefore other students should too. Perhaps the answer lies not in that we need to stop being “practical”, but that we simply haven’t adequately identified the “practicality” of various subjects like Philosophy or the Arts. I think there may be deeper problems in the way we structure and teach courses in those subjects of the humanities, as well. 

But, surely, these questions don’t apply to pre-medical students, right? Wrong. On the Harvard Medical School Requirements for Admissions page, it is written, 

“We adhere to the important principle that the college years are not, and should not be, designed primarily to prepare students for professional schools. Instead, the college years should be devoted to a creative engagement in the elements of a broad, intellectually expansive liberal arts education.”

How can we, undergraduates as a whole, address these issues? We need to talk about it. We need to establish a meaningful rhetoric when we give reasons why do the things that we do. we need to talk about what the true meaning of learning. When we advertise or write about the activities we do, we need to use the appropriate rhetoric to address any issues that may arise. “We are devoted to giving findings the skills/experience necessary to prepare us for medical school”, we should say “We are devoted to create experiences that are necessary for intellectual growth.” When we volunteer, we can encourage students to ask questions about the ethics/motives of what we do. (For example, viewing volunteering as an avenue for one’s own practical experience denies the core ethical truths of selflessness and generosity that should guide volunteering.) When we take classes, we encourage students to discover new areas and study new things. We can encourage more students to openly debate and ask questions about the purpose of their research/classes/whatever. Most importantly, we need to remember that we are not here for the purpose of getting into medical school or preparing for future careers. We’re here so we can understand what it means to learn. 

Before I end this post, I want to address the fact that I am aware that a lot of the things I am saying will seem critical and abrasive to many people. It may seem as though I am attacking the very foundations that many students have built their academic careers upon and I am pointing out the ethical flaws in the individual. Let me emphasize that I am not here to criticize individual people or organizations. I am not here to judge others for what they have done. At the same time, we need to be able to point out wrongdoings in a healthy and diplomatic way. It is true that we often find ourselves avoiding disagreement out of fear that others may be upset. We often confuse general statements about problems as personal attacks. We find students being non-confrontational about poor behavior for the sake of being “open-minded” and “tolerant.” I want to open up a discourse about these issues so we can all come to our own solutions about these problems. 

Throughout our education, we should remember that our objective should be to find a purpose in the things that we create. By this, I mean that we need to see success as something that an individual student can create (ie., earning good grades, starting conversations about new things, coming up with new ideas, studying new things, asking questions about the things we do etc.), rather than something that students needs to obtain (ie., vapid leadership positions, “professional” skills, interpersonal experience, etc.). We need to encourage student to not be afraid to take risks nor experience failure. If we can make our souls deep and rich, then whatever we choose to do in life will be incredibly meaningful. 

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