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When I graduated from college, I despaired that I knew so little and had touched so few of the subjects I might have studied had I a tool such as Hermione’s Time-Turner, which of course hadn’t been “invented” yet. My parents didn’t understand why I kept taking college courses after graduation, and attended grad school, not driven by the need to be something in particular, but to learn. Only recently have I come to realize that while I did indeed miss things I consider important, I got far more out of college than I thought at the time, including a deep grasp of theory, which has been hugely helpful, not to mention the myriad extracurricular travels that I somehow managed to balance with school.
Fast forward to my son. Every semester except the last, he called to suggest that he drop out of college. It wasn’t that he wasn’t a good student; he was, and he’s a natural learner. The reason was that he felt he might learn more outside the safe confines of campus, out in the world, without the cushion college provided. That artificial environment, he suspected, got in the way of real learning. “I can learn wherever I am, Mom.”
I always said the same thing: It’s up to you, of course, but I hope you stay in college. This wasn’t purely a reflexive primordial response; I am only the second generation in my family to have had the opportunity to attend college, and the difference higher education made for my parents, the first generation, was extraordinary. My answer went something like this: Yes, many people—including the late Steve Jobs—abandoned formal higher education and went on to blaze brilliant paths. That’s what they did. I’d love for you to take this time to prepare for your intellectual and personal life journeys, hone your learning skills and intuition, and stumble onto seams of knowledge that intrigue you.
But mom, he’d argue, I could be tackling the problems of the world right now and immersing myself in environments where the learning would be more meaningful, organic and make a difference. I’d argue back: True, but you can do this while in college (and he did) and when you graduate, I promise you the world’s problems will still be there. He was never satisfied with this answer but he stayed the course, taking his studies seriously and graduating, for which I am grateful. A few years after college, however, he’s still not convinced he made the right decision. When I tell him that I see the many strengths that he gained from higher education, he counters that he may have taken away lessons of equal or greater value elsewhere.
He may change his mind someday, just as I have. But if he called me today, I’d answer differently. Since he graduated, complacency has been shaken from the world. I’d still say stay in college. Why? Not just for personal benefit. But because humanity is backsliding and we can’t let that happen. The knowledge of humanity’s long hard trudge through misery—the lessons gleaned from millennia of massacres, mass starvations, plagues, tyrannical rulers and the like—is in danger of being lost. It’s an inspiring story, marked by golden ages and breakthrough understandings that have changed history for the better. I’d tell him that this story is one of the most critical things a college education has to offer. And that it is critical for democracy and the survival of humanity.
For me, and all of us here at Moment, the question of what we want our students to get out of a college education is foundational at a time when there’s less consensus than ever about the value of college—and more and more need for learning. And so for our Spring Issue “Big Question,” we took on this question, interviewing a broad range of thinkers—including Nikole Hannah-Jones, Leon Botstein, Erica Brown, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Bob Mankoff and many more. This question concerns every American. Yet at its core, what we want our students to learn is also a deeply Jewish question.
I hope you will learn as much as I did from this “Big Question” and that it will be required reading for parents and students thinking about college—and for students like my son, who attend college and question why they are there. As usual, the conversation doesn’t stop here. There are far more answers than we could gather: Please suggest other thinkers to interview and, of course, share your opinion too. I always look forward to hearing from you.