What is College For?

Why do you think people go to college? I ask this question during the introduction of the College Transition Seminar. It is always interesting to hear how students and parents respond. “To get a job” is probably the reason I hear the most. And, of course, there are the playful, more peripheral answers: to get married, to party, and to play sports. But then someone will sheepishly raise a hand and suggest: “to learn something.” A few weeks ago at a church in Florida, in fact, I counted eleven answers that were given before someone mentioned, “learning” or “education.”

College is certainly about more than learning. The time between adolescence and adulthood includes a variety of character-forming decisions and activities. But it does surprise me when a room full of college bound students don’t naturally list “learning” as a reason for going to college. In his informative book, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco  challenges readers to think more deeply about the aims of a college education.

Dr. Delbanco explains that historically there have been basically three prevailing answers to the question, what is college for? The most common answer is an economic one. A college education makes an individual more competitive in the job market. The second answer is based on citizenship. An educated society is required for a democracy to flourish. The third answer is rarely considered, however Delbanco thinks it deserves more attention: an educated person enjoys a fulfilling life. “You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life,” Delbanco quotes former college president, Judith Shapiro, to make his point. Delbanco laments:

“In Today’s America, at every kind of institution—from underfunded community colleges to the wealthiest Ivies—this kind of education is at risk. Students are pressured and programmed, trained to live from task to task, relentlessly rehearsed and tested until winners are culled from the rest. They scarcely have time for… contemplation.”   

And contemplation about education, and life in general, is desperately needed! According to Delbanco “most students have no clear conception of why or to what end they are in college. Some students have always been aimless, bored, or confused; others self-possessed, with their eyes on the prize. Most are somewhere in between, looking for something to care about.”

Students are craving something to care about. The pressure to perform and achieve is intense and often leaves students feeling empty. I recently had a conversation with a youth pastor who was worried about his students. Many of them were stressed and overwhelmed about their Advanced Placement (AP) courses. What’s more, the students who were not taking AP classes were looked down upon and ridiculed. At one point in our conversation, the youth pastor passionately asked, “Where is Jesus in all of this?”

This summer marked the fifth anniversary of the publication of The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness. My good friend Don Opitz and I published this little book to try to answer the question this youth pastor appropriately asked: does Jesus care about our academic pursuits? Our hope is that our book serves as a guide for students who are perhaps “aimless, bored or confused.” It is also a challenge to students with their “eyes on the (worldly) prize.” We invite students to consider Kingdom-shaped answers to the questions, what is college for and why is learning important? Here are a few answers we suggest:

“We want you to find the deep satisfaction of pursuing your daily labors (for now, primarily attending class and studying) as service to God. We want you to experience the unending challenge of exalting Christ as Lord of your thinking… to imagine the application of your learning—your studies and plans and dreams—as an expression of love, or better yet, as a conduit for the love of God.”

“Christ is the very source of learning, and his disciples are the intended recipients of that wisdom and knowledge. As we learn in faith, not only will our own capacity for wonder and insight and love increase, but others will benefit as well.”

“Being concerned about grades is appropriate, but too often students become obsessive about grades and success and begin to lose the bigger picture. Learning needs to be pursued with the right motives and applied to worthwhile purposes.”

“Two things can happen to a college student, and both of these things are very bad. Unfortunately, both are also very common. You can lose the capacity to dream, and you can lose the gumption to act.”

“The Bible portrays a seamless continuity between our knowing and our doing… Learning isn’t merely for job readiness or self-advancement. Learning ought to be a way to love God and neighbor, a way to care for the creation and develop healthy communities.”

“If your capacity for delight and wonder and curiosity and compassion is being enlarged while you are in college, then that is a very good sign indeed… that is what most of us really want for ourselves. Academic faithfulness is the sure cure for collegiate boredom, apathy, and listlessness.”

When the topic of academic faithfulness or Christian scholarship has been raised, Christian students often see the challenge as beyond them, as a task for the stout and the wise, for the uniquely gifted. We think every Christian student has been called by God to think faithfully about learning. But students shouldn’t have to engage this conversation alone. A study guide has been created to be used in small groups as well. Our prayer is that The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness invites more and more students to ask better, bigger questions about faithfulness and learning.

Professor Delbanco’s new book, College, should help to keep this important conversation in front of many students and parents as they make important college decisions. I am grateful for Delbanco’s wisdom and hope his book is widely read.

(Read an interview from Inside Higher Ed with author Andrew Delbanco.)