The Question for Students

BY AARON BARLOW

What do you think of when someone says, “college student”? Probably a white kid, well spoken, from an upper-middle-class professional family—especially if that is your own background and was your own college experience.

This was David Brooks’ experience. Yale, Duke and the University of Chicago are the campuses he knows and, very likely, the ones that formed his perceptions of students. Certainly, he has no idea what the experiences are of students from beyond the narrow swathe of America those campuses represent—certainly, at least, if the assumptions in his writings are to be believed.

Here’s a sampling from his column “Mis-Educating the Young”:

There used to be certain milestones that young adults were directed toward by age 27: leaving home, becoming financially independent, getting married, buying a house, having a child…. People in their 20s seem to be compelled to bounce around more, popping up here and there, quantumlike, with different jobs, living arrangements and partners.

Few of my students over the past decade would fit this pattern. Few students, nationally, would.

When Brooks graduated from college in 1983, he says, he had a limited number of career choices, all professional. He contrasts that to what he sees as a myriad of choices today (though, he admits, the pay is worse). The implication is that the change has been steady, that what once was standard now is something else.

But Brooks’ standard would have been quite different had he graduated from college, as I did, a decade earlier. During the economic troubles of the seventies, I had at least ten jobs in five years, and lived in five states, many of them more working class than professional. That seems much more like the situation of today’s college graduates than of those ten years younger than I—or older, for that matter. Brooks imagines that his own tiny experience was universal—or, at least, applies to a great stretch of time.

Perhaps Brooks would argue that he is only writing for a specific class, one defined by readership of The New York Times—but that’s always been the argument of the elite, that they’re the only ones who matter. In his article, Brooks also writes of “the great engine of the meritocracy,” one of the grand fictions of the elite, those who, like Brooks, love to think that they deserve their places at the top of the heap.

Brooks falls into the fallacy of using a part for drawing conclusions about a whole. “The young,” to him, as a whole are exactly those young people he has met. No more. The vast number of American students who work their way through college, who drop children off at campus daycare so they can attend classes, who juggle complex lives in order to proceed, as Brooks calls it, from “station to station: take that test, apply to that college, aim for a degree” dwarfs the number of “traditional” college students of privilege, the ones Brooks imagines as the whole.

What’s worse, Brooks’ ignorance of students extends to the teachers who work to enable the education of those students, who, he says “teach about what interests the professors.” True, many of us (and I am one) use what interests us in order to spark curiosity in our students—perhaps the single most important tool learners can develop for assisting in their own education. Our enthusiasm makes our classrooms much more intriguing for our students—and the example of the work we do shows them what becoming educated really entails.

The advice Brooks gives students near the end of his article is advice only for the privileged:

If you are going to be underemployed, do it in a way that people are going to find interesting later on. Nobody is ever going to ask you, “What was it like being a nanny?” They will ask you, “What was it like leading excursions of Outward Bound?

That would have been good advice for me and, indeed, I followed it. But few contemporary students have such luxury.

Brooks ends with questions he would have colleges put on the table to help with what he sees as continuing times of uncertainty:

  • What does ‘being an adult’ mean?
  • How have people found purpose in life?
  • Should one dream big?
  • What should be considered before cohabitation?
  • How can sadness be cured? And
  • “What do I want and what is truly worth wanting?”

Most colleges—and most students and faculty—today would find such questions meaningless. Their students are already learning what being an adult means through the lives they are living. Their students have already found purpose in religion and in ‘working in their garden.’ Their students already know to dream big but act to meet more immediate needs. Their students understand the ins and outs of relationships, having lived them. Their students know that sadness can only be cured by effort. And their students are in school because they know what they want and that it starts with an education.

The questions we need to pose for students have more to do with understanding of just what education can do. Many of them have unrealistic ideas of what a college degree means, assuming that a college education is simply the training needed for getting a better job. Of course, a college education can lead to greater success, but that is not because of the training that college can also provide. It is because of the ability and habit of learning that graduates should have mastered.

The real question for students, then, is simply how best can they gain and maintain skills of lifelong learning while preparing for a new level of employment.

What Brooks asks is simply fluff for the elite.


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