College: more than a credential

Even as many people question the worth -- and cost -- of a bachelor's degree, college remains crucial to civilization. It is how knowledge is transferred from one generation to the next.

Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor/File
A view of the lawn at the University of Virginia as seen from The Rotunda.

College is like the mythical Scottish village of Brigadoon. It comes alive in a fleeting, magical way for entering freshmen and vanishes into the mists roughly four years later when the caps and gowns are returned and only memories and debt remain.

Oh sure, faculty and staff work at colleges year in and year out. Perennial students can be found there, too, along with buskers, landlords, and shopkeepers. But college is mostly about young people coming of age, grappling with new ideas, learning useful skills, and networking with contemporaries who may always be friends (and may also end up knowing something they can hold over you for the rest of your life).

Colleges are the membrane through which the accumulated knowledge of humanity is transmitted from one generation to the next, along with hacky sack, foosball, and frisbee. The process works best via a professor, a teaching assistant, a set of books, and a series of lab experiments. But some of the transfer inevitably occurs via CliffsNotes, last-minute cramming, and late-night talkathons. When a bachelor’s degree is awarded, the transaction is more or less complete – which is good but may not be enough anymore to make it in the job market.

In a Monitor cover story, Lee Lawrence looks into the worth of a bachelor’s degree. Where once a bachelor’s could open doors, it has become so commonplace that it might not be enough to land a job. On the one hand, graduate-degree holders may have a leg up; on the other hand, vocational skills alone may be a surer way to a paycheck. But while a bachelor’s may have become devalued, it is a minimal requirement in most jobs, a steppingstone to graduate credentials, and crucial for that little matter of civilization.

Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco, in a new book titled “College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be,” points out that students “have always been searching for purpose. They have always been unsure of their gifts and goals, and susceptible to the demands ... of their parents and of the abstraction we call ‘the market.’ ” He cites Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1871 description of a man entering college when everything was “distant, golden, indefinite, and I was sure I was good for almost anything that could be named.” But he soon began to wonder about “all the pains and money” expended on his education.

And yet almost everyone who emerges from college is equipped with the modicum of critical thinking necessary to participate in a democracy and to appreciate life more fully. “Anyone who earns a BA from a reputable college,” Professor Delbanco says, “ought to
 understand something about the genealogy of ... ideas and practices, about the historical processes from which they have emerged, the tragic cost when societies fail to defend them, and about alternative ideas both within the Western tradition and outside it.”

I’ve found myself on campuses in Cairo, Moscow, and Baghdad. I’ve seen the western sun paint gold the university buildings on Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus, walked along the scholar-scuffed halls of Magdalen College at England’s Oxford University, and felt the same ephemeral magic in Lubbock, Texas; Amherst, Mass.; and midtown Manhattan. A degree is only part of what a student takes from these places. The rest – the appreciation of the past, the enrichment of literature, the windows opened in a thousand minds – that is what a BA means, too.

John Yemma is editor of The Christian Science Monitor. Email:

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