Will my college education get me a Porsche, or just a BMW?
Picture this poster plastered on a dorm-room door: A neon sunset sparkling on tropical waters. Palm trees swaying in the distance. Ocean surf lapping up to a house that could pass for a castle. Below the house stands a five-car garage where impressive European automobiles are parked: BMW, Mercedes, Porsche, their paint jobs glistening candy-apple red and British racing green.
All of which could come easily to you for the fair price of $5.50, as sold at the University of Rochester's Barnes & Noble campus bookstore.
But here's the kicker: The banner that sails across the top carries the following message: "Justification for Higher Education."
I have always been called a sucker for flowery virtues and idealistic principles. Among my more pragmatic friends I have occasionally been accused of being a dreamer. I'll be the first to admit it; I probably saw "Dead Poets Society" one too many times.
But after spending two years away at college, I have noticed that it is not uncommon to watch the pursuit of higher education and the pursuit of material things get easily confused.
If you believe what you read in the newspapers or hear in the dining halls these days, you might draw the conclusion that a quick, stable career is a lot sexier than eating rice and beans and reading about Henry David Thoreau wading around Walden Pond.
"It's the coolest poster ever," said junior Yoel Baqas, a neuroscience major and proud owner of the poster. Sitting on his bed, Mr. Baqas told me that the poster is "something I look forward to, and look up to - I wouldn't mind driving a Porsche.
"This summer I worked with neurosurgeons who made $500,000 to $600,000 a year. They have five or six cars. You go out to dinner with these guys, and it's not to McDonald's," he added, content, candid, and honest.
Anyway you slice it, the nature, economics, purpose, and "justification" for higher education seems to be changing, and college kids are no exception.
"What this poster suggests is that the point of education is neither to produce citizens nor to produce workers, but consumers," says Robert Foster, professor of Anthropology here at UR. Professor Foster teaches classes on changing global markets and the culture of consumerism in America.
"This is not a mysterious conspiracy," he says smiling. "Commercial entrepreneurs use education as their market."
From the use of product names in problem sets (i.e.: "How many pairs of Nike shoes does it take....") to the impact of Channel One in classrooms, Foster hints that higher education has gone from producing "good citizens to good workers -and now to good consumers."
As the latest newspaper headlines and the bookstore poster suggest, these days, education is big business. But it doesn't take a college diploma to see that the dangerous game of footsy being played between consumerism and education clearly poses a threat to the quality of thinking and reasoning.
If learning is constantly measured in relation to the bottom line, the true justification for higher education will cease to exist, and then what will happen to higher thinking?
Not exactly the school spirit for scholars.
* Geoffrey Gray is a junior majoring in political science at the University of Rochester in New York.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society