In recent years, it has become increasingly fashionable to criticize colleges and universities and question the value of earning an undergraduate education and degree. This criticism has emanated principally from two directions. First, there are celebrities in the entertainment and tech world who have attained great wealth without completing four years of college or even attending at all; who, in the words of Bill Maher (one of my otherwise favorite comedians), dismiss undergraduate education as "a racket that sells you a very expensive ticket to the upper middle class."
Second, there are academics who, whether denied tenure at an academic institution or disillusioned by their less than satisfactory teaching experience, wrongly assume that the mood at a handful of colleges and universities is typical of every college and university; along these lines, there are journalists and others outside the academy who telescope the world of undergraduate education as a once-hallowed intellectual endeavor now irreparably sullied by a hyper-sensitive political correctness.
These criticisms have merit. But even in tandem, they ignore — willfully or unwittingly — the value of undergraduate education and the vitality of college and university life and learning. What follows is a celebration of undergraduate education with particular attention to three main criticisms that have leveled against it: cost, benefits and campus atmosphere.
Full disclosure: I am not a neutral observer or commentator. I have taught undergraduates for more than a quarter of a century at a variety of undergraduate institutions — an Ivy league school, a private New England Liberal Arts college, a Canadian public university, a flagship Midwest state university, and a state-funded urban university — and still consider teaching undergraduates an honor and a privilege.
The Joneses University
In terms of cost, the easiest of these criticisms to debunk, it is useful to distinguish between private and state-funded institutions. The spiraling costs of attending a private college or university, which approaches six-figures in the most expensive cases, are far too expensive for most families to afford, apart from the handful of spots that these institutions grant free of charge to a few lucky applicants. These institutions are simply charging the market-bearing price, a decision vindicated annually by a surplus of applicants compared to available spots. Fortunately, no family is required to bear this expense.
The choice to send one's child to a private college or university is just that — a choice. The challenge of bearing this exorbitantly high cost arises generally in one of two situations in which families who cannot afford to pay send their child anyway. In some cases, families spend beyond their means in the hope that, upon graduation, the successful student will secure employment with an income substantial enough to recover the massive expenditures and repay all debts; this choice carries an obvious risk — caviat emptor. In other cases, an expensive private school is a source of status, a way to "keep up with the Joneses."
This choice is not that different from incurring the cost of a high-end automobile, house or vacation. The simple fact is there is no compelling reason why a parent must send their child to a private university or college, when there are perfectly good state colleges and universities available where one can obtain a comparable education for a fraction of the cost. Paying the exorbitant price of a private university or college education (no less than paying the price of a private elementary or high school education) is a choice. Succumbing to peer pressure is a choice. Keeping up with the Joneses is a choice.
State-funded colleges and universities, founded with the express purpose of making quality education on this level available, are a readily available alternative to these hyper-expensive schools. The founding of state colleges and universities was part of a broader initiative: the democratization of knowledge — that is, creating full and equal access to knowledge for all, regardless of income and social class. Public schools, public libraries, and public colleges and universities were founded with this aim in mind. (The internet's information superhighway was also created for this purpose, but has yet to produce the desired results.)
In theory, all state universities and colleges should be readily accessible to all students with the appropriate academic credentials and accomplishments. In some states, this continues to be the case; less so, in Michigan, where the annual costs of attending the University of Michigan, for example, now approaches thirty thousand dollars. As such, the high cost of attending a state college or university is a more serious problem than the high cost of private schools, since there is no less expensive alternative for the children of lower income families, regardless of the child's merit or academic ability.
The solution is straightforward: a larger investment in state education would bring down the cost. This would ensure that being able to attend a state school, even an elite state school, would depend on academic ability and potential regardless of economic standing — and preclude affluent parents from using their wealth to buy admission for children unable to get in on merit alone. Even for those critics whose sole metric is economic, investing in state education has an obvious payoff: not squandering potential contributions to society by thousands of lower-income children. We all benefit when we cultivate all young minds.
Degrees with Benefits
The spiraling cost of education has narrowed the metric for measuring the value and benefit of an undergraduate education down to the salary a student can earn upon graduation and access to a high-status graduate or professional program (that itself is valued by future earning potential.)
This attitude recalls Karl Marx's notion of a "superstructure" — that is, the way in which a particular economic outlook shapes the way we perceive all aspects of life. For example, people in the nobility-dominated feudal middle ages valued honor over competition and profit; while, in our own capitalist age, profit and competition determine how we measure everything.
This difference in mentality is visible everywhere, even, for example, in our approach to athletic competition. The goal of the medieval joust was not to win but to compete honorably; knocking one's opponent off the horse dishonorably was a losing venture. These days, we view all athletic events as competitions measured by wins and losses. We calculate statistics the way a bean counter calculates loss and profit; we know the salaries of professional athletes and even the names of owners of teams — the actual capitalists.
Similarly, a superstructure determines our attitude toward education. In the days of yore, the purpose of an education was an end in itself, a way to fashion a more honorable and virtuous individual — not a means to earn more money. This pervading attitude toward education was defined much like the Jewish concept of Torah lishma (learning for its own sake) and not by the title or salary one could earn. In European universities and yeshivas alike, the loftiest goal was not a degree or smicha per se; rather a lifelong commitment to learning that earned a student a diploma or ordination in recognition of a commitment to learning. (Students who came to a yeshiva with the expressed aim of earning the title of rabbi often wound up disappointed.)
In sharp contrast, today the quality of an institution's education is measured by the salary of graduates. Parents encourage children to choose not only a school but even a major based on earning potential — Economics as a gateway to business school, Political Science for law school, natural science for medical school — some discourage their children's interest in "frivolous" disciplines (typically in the humanities), because "what can you do (i.e. how can you earn a living) with that degree?"
This is a narrow, incomplete measure of the value of an education and especially the value of a liberal arts education, for two reasons. First, a basic goal of college education is to teach young people not only how to think critically, but also to instill in them a broad, nuanced perspective of the world in all its complexity that enables them to recognize the questions that need to be asked. In this regard, the recent emphasis on multiculturalism is the latest incarnation of a pedagogy that dates back centuries.
The legal and medical professions acknowledged the importance of this attitude toward college education nearly a century ago by insisting that a would-be physician or lawyer become literate and well-versed in a broad range of subjects before specializing in medicine or law. These professions aim to train doctors and lawyers who can speak intelligently and passionately about a broad array of topics — history, philosophy, music, art, literature, politics — in addition to their own specialty. They wanted, in other words, not only to train capable doctors and lawyers, but doctors and lawyers who are also interesting, interested people with a capacity to empathize with people from all walks of life. This is, or should be, the paradigm for measuring the value of undergraduate education.
Information is the Lowest Form of Knowledge
The most extreme version of this cost-benefit panning of undergraduate education is the argument that the unprecedented availability of information has precluded the need to spend any money on a college education. To paraphrase (and update) Will Hunting: why spend $150,000 on an education you can get for the cost of a library card and access to the internet? To be sure, the notion that one can acquire an education autodidactically is nothing new. Yet once upon a time, self-education meant entering a library and reading books cover to cover, and reading an entire essay in a quality newspaper or magazine — not just the headline. Today, it means an anemic attempt to understand the complexities of history, philosophy, politics and culture from TikTok and Wikipedia, two constant reminders that information is the lowest form of knowledge.
This hollow, superficial substitution for real education has contributed to a widespread inability to distinguish between wisdom and sophistry and between scientific method and pseudoscience. The value of sitting in a seminar room, laboratory or lecture hall to learn from someone who has spent years mastering a particular discipline is more indispensable than ever. The pandemic has taught us, among other things, to appreciate what dedicated teachers have to offer — not only information but teaching, that is, guiding students through an ever-more complex maze of facts and ideas in a way that helps them understand and appreciate fully what they learn.
Quad or Octagon?
Yet even critics who concede the possible benefits of a college education claim that the current atmosphere on North American campuses precludes these benefits from coming to fruition. How, after all, can students hope to learn anything amidst a barrage of noisy, angry protestors and social media creatures demanding the head of everyone who does not line up on the right side of a particular issue? Yes, university campuses these days are hotbeds of an activism that often devolves into shouting matches and one side angrily dismissing the other. Yet is this situation really that novel? In fact, University campuses have always been focal points of intense public debate, youthful immoderation, and political radicalism.
The issues and points of view have varied, but the activism has remained — as it should. For Jewish students, in particular, two things have changed. First, there are now more Jewish students who arrive on campus after attending a Jewish day school from kindergarten through high school and a Jewish summer camp. Prior to arriving on a college campus, such students have rarely if ever encountered views contrary to their own. Some are unprepared and overwhelmed when greeted upon arrival by ideas that question their basic presumptions about the way things are, even by other Jews.
This sense of being overwhelmed is especially poignant owing to the fact that, to the dismay of many, a once largely unanimous support for the State of Israel has been supplanted by a mixture of ardent support for the State of Israel and condemnations of Israeli policy. Though more boisterous and widespread, this condemnation is not new. When I was an undergraduate during the early 1980s, I was accosted by fellow resident of East Quad who objected to the logo on the t-shirt I was wearing ("I'm proud to be a Zionist!") My response, simply put, was to engage my fellow quaddie by employing a version of what is now known as hasbara, explaining/defending the policies of the State of Israel without apologizing for its existence as a Jewish state. Admittedly, this task has become more challenging for students. Yet even the most strident and boisterous challenges are not a reason to turn tail and flee. On the contrary, facing a challenge to one's beliefs is an effective way — perhaps the most effective way — to test and strengthen them.
In these more polarized times, moreover, it is especially important for students to stand up for what they believe rather than hide behind claims of narrow-minded bubbles or cancel culture. Instructive in this regard is the wisdom of Bernard-Henri Lévy:
ignore the maniacs advocating 'safe spaces' and 'comfort zones; allow yourself to be riled up by the bubbling anger of things; if you don’t, you’ll be dead before you even begin to live.
In addition, students — and especially new students — who may not at first have the mettle to take on this challenge have a ready-made ally on campus: Hillel, an organization created a century ago for this very purpose. The upshot is that the antidote to students being challenged on college campuses is not to found another college or university that advocates a more amenable set of ideas. (Creating a "College of I hate the New York Times" replicates the problems without solving it).
Rather, this is the moment for our future leaders to face the gauntlet thrown down before them and be steeled for the challenges of the future. For students who want to learn to think critically, explore a broad range of ideas and test their convictions on the intellectual battlefield, the benefits of a college education outweigh the imperfections.