What is the Purpose of an Education?



I’m now in frequent conversation with the parents of prospective students.  Many of these parents are themselves still draining the dregs of their own student debt.  They are sadly aware that the return on their undergraduate investment was meager.  They are then attracted to majors for their children that are nominally linked to jobs.  They balk at the high price tag associated with the traditional residential liberal arts experience—an experience they believed themselves to have undergone—and are encouraging other models for their own children.

Of course, it is unlikely that these parents did actually receive a traditional liberal arts education.  Such a thing hasn’t been broadly on offer since the early 20th century, which makes it a very hard thing to sell today.  If I bought an overpriced car that did me little good, I would not want to buy a car of the same brand for my son.  If the salesman retorted that what I had bought for myself many years ago was only a cheap knock off, I would merely be insulted and incredulous.  Parents thus insulted and incredulous reason out another path for their children that avoids the man peddling ‘genuine’ liberal arts education.

The reasoning goes, ‘I will send my child to college to prepare for a job.  By doing so, I will make him employable.’  Now, job training is a very important thing.  I hope my mechanic has had a good deal of it when he is working on my break lines.  Nevertheless, job training is something that we do as part of our jobs and that we are usually paid for.  How many of us would attend the ‘mandatory safety training’ otherwise? Parents who pay many thousands of dollars for their children to be trained in jobs might expect the companies of America to send letters of gratitude for having saved them the expense of training employees.  Of course, those companies won’t send any such letter because the job training that colleges and universities supply is so generic as to be of limited use. One wonders, indeed, if that training will seem especially useful as those who received it enter their fifth or sixth career change.

If the job training afforded by colleges is of such limited value as this, one should get through college as quickly and as cheaply as possible—making use of local community colleges and online learning.  The job itself will afford all the training.  All you need is the shiny piece of paper that allows you to apply.  For some, pressed by the hardships of today’s economy, job training is all they can afford.  Those who follow that path, the path of Paul Bunyan and John Henry, do well and our nation owes them its thanks.

There is, however, an alternative to this curt, efficient, but not especially rich course of training.  Humane liberal education—studying the greatest works of humanity while living with like-minded students—has always been available to people of even limited means. By developing the affections and tastes of young people, humane study made them attracted to learning and equipped for it.  It taught them to seek out the best in their labor and leisure, and to have the intellectual tools for dealing with whatever might come their way.  It did this in residence with other people just like them, who contemplate together the richest and most meaningful things. Humane studies pre-suppose that we need training to love the loveliest things because our sin nature disinclines us from the wonderful works of God.  And at the same time humane studies assume that, because we are human, we had best be as human as we can be first.  Then we can get to the labor that only humans can do and do it as humans would, not as machines or monkeys.

Now, in full disclosure, we cannot and do not offer quite that sort of study at Grove City College.  We cannot, because there aren’t enough people who want it to make it financially viable.  We do not, because we hope to train young people for jobs even as we liberally educate them. What we do offer is a very close second to it—a large dose of liberal learning alongside vocational training. The dose is among the largest one can get—18 hours of humanities plus a large requirement in science, math, and social sciences. If that dose happens to be especially effective, the student may end up studying liberally their whole life long.  Some will even shock their parents by electing a major without a career path in its name.  Others will be steadily influenced by that liberal arts core while still fulfilling nominal qualifications for a job. This is undertaken on a campus full of students who love the most lovely things and are trying to help one another become better at that. I’m under no delusions that this is perfect.  But for parents who worry about the future, it seems perfectly to satisfy.  On the one hand, students will not only seem to be qualified for a job, they’ll actually be qualified for most jobs, because they’ve been given a minor in humane learning—the only program of study to make a mind nimble enough for hard intellectual labor.  On the other hand, they’ll satisfy the arbitrary degree expectations of employers (the employers still have them, after all) and will find themselves, as basically all Grove City graduates do, in handsome and well-paid jobs.


Author, Dr. Joshua Drake, is one of the esteemed Music faculty here at Grove City College. He instructs students in Civilization and the Arts, Church Music, Literature of Music, Art History, Beginning and Intermediate Voice.


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