A Dialog on Education: A Socratic Approach to Choosing the Right College

by Chris Swanson


Solomon Salvatore is attending his 25th high school reunion. The high school, called The Academy, is a respected New England private preparatory school. The Academy is also celebrating its 100-year anniversary, which has prompted school officials to hold the reunion at the luxurious new All Seasons Health/Beauty Resort and Spa. This upscale resort caters to individuals who wish to achieve the pinnacle of health. Solomon has found a couple of old classmates and has organized lunch with them at the resort’s restaurant. The first is Roger Simpson, a newly appointed president of Haverford, a large public university. The other, Bud Sager, is the academic dean of the smaller elite private college, Brownstone College. They are seated at a small table.

 

Bud Sager: So how have you two been getting along?

Roger Simpson: Superbly, though I am frightfully overextended.

Sag: It is that time of life.

Simp: My new position as university president is exciting but challenging. Personally, I think my secretary accomplished a herculean task to find time in my schedule to allow me to come.

Sag: I am with you 100%. One’s duties as dean never seem to stop. But I wouldn’t miss this trip down memory lane for anything.

Simp: Solomon, my crazy friend, I haven’t seen or heard from you since graduation. It’s been too long.

Sag: It has. I miss all of those adventures you led us on. To this day, I’m guaranteed to get a room full of laughs when I tell the stories of the ingenious and elaborate pranks you got us mixed up in. You were always so clever. I’m dying to hear what great things you have accomplished.

Solomon Salvatore: I’m an auto mechanic.

Simp: Oh. … That’s great. Really?

Salv: Yep. But I’ve enjoyed it. Soon after graduation, I got married and had a couple of kids. So college was never in the cards. My eldest, Charlotte, though, is looking into college now, and so I’ve been poking around trying to help her to find the right school.

Simp: Well you’re at the perfect table then!

Sag: Has Charlotte got her eye on any particular school?

Salv: Not yet. We have been looking together, but it’s a bit overwhelming.

Simp: I’ll say. There are many options. Is she interested in any particular major or area of study?

Salv: She isn’t really sure. What I have been telling her, though, is that what is most important is getting a really high quality education.

Sag: Exactly. Fortunately the Northeast has an abundance of excellent schools.

Salv: So I hear. But the more I look, the more confused I get.

Sag: Why is that?

Salv: I can’t figure out what high quality education is. For that matter, I can’t even figure out what education is supposed to be for.

 

Education Imparts Knowledge and Skills for Career

The server approaches.

Fabio: Good evening. My name is Fabio, and I will be your server this afternoon. Welcome to Diete, our premiere restaurant, where your health is our first concern. Would you like to hear our menu offerings?

Simp: I don’t think I will be interested in any specials today. I will order off the menu.

Fabio: Ahh, I am sorry. I was not clear. You see at Diete, we offer a variety of distinct menus. You can order from any one of them.

Sag: Different menus? How novel.

Fabio: Yes, we have the Vegan menu, the Paleo menu, the Meat and Protein menu, the Fruitarian menu, and the Liquid Diet Shake menu.

Simp: Ahh. I don’t suppose you serve Cobb salad?

Fabio: Absolutely.

Salv: Why so many menus, if I may ask?

Fabio: Of course. Our patrons seek perfect health and have a variety of dietary needs. Naturally we seek to provide service for all approaches to dietary health.

Salv: But these menus seem contradictory. How can they all promote health?

Fabio: Each patron has a specially designed program which they select with the help of their beautification advisor.

Sag: Beautification advisor? What in the world?

Salv: So the patrons come to the resort already knowing what is healthy, or do you teach them?

Fabio: Ah. Perhaps you would like to speak to our resident nutritionist. He would be glad to help you if you would like to hear more about our programs.

Sag: Look, could I just get a Cobb salad as well?

Fabio: Of course. And you sir, would you like to look at one of our menus?

Salv: No, thanks. I’ll go with the Cobb.

Fabio: Wonderful. Is there anything else I can get you? Drinks, appetizers?

Simp: That will be all I think.

Fabio: Thank you.

Sag: Odd. But if I may pick up where we left off, what is the source of your confusion about education?

Salv: My daughter’s got me thinking. What exactly is education, and what is it for? I have been looking for someone to help me sort it out but have not had any luck. I have this bad habit of asking too many questions, and my conversations go nowhere. To be totally honest, it was my hope that I might get some help from you two, which is partly why I tried to get us all together.

Sag: Ahh. Well I am glad you did. I am sure we would be happy to help.

Simp: Absolutely.

Salv: The problem is that I have heard so many conflicting ideas about education. I am having trouble making sense of it all.

Simp: Well, I don’t think it is all that complicated really. At Haverford University, we seek to impart knowledge, knowledge that opens up opportunities, knowledge that leads ultimately to a career of the student’s own choosing.

Sag: Exactly. Knowledge broadens perspectives. As they say, knowledge is power.

Salv: So they say. I wish I could remember half of the knowledge I learned in school. It all seems to have faded away, most of it about a week after the exam. But maybe with high quality schools, students don’t forget. Is that right?

Simp: Forgetting is a problem, no doubt. But it seems clear that if the students forget they have not been educated.

Salv: So how long do they have to remember?

Sag: I am not sure there is any clear length of time so long as they remember long enough that their knowledge becomes useful to them.

Salv: Oh. So are you saying knowledge that is not useful to them is not part of education?

Simp: This whole conversation needs to be put into context. The knowledge that students gain during their university education is directed to their career. They need to have the kind of information that will allow them to be successful in their chosen career path. As they pursue their career, those things that they learned and continue to use will be remembered. Other things may become less important to them, and they will forget.

Salv: Seems like the job is the goal then.

Simp: Clearly.

Salv: Then you offer students job-specific classes.

Sag: More or less, yes. That is what the major is for, of course.

Salv: Charlotte has one friend that has his sights set on being a computer programmer. Another has been saying he wants to be a chef, like that Ramsay guy on TV. So do they take only computer and cooking classes?

Sag: That is not exactly what I meant.

Salv: Oh. What did you mean?

Simp: Obviously, we don’t teach cooking classes.

Salv: How can he learn to be a chef?

Sag: Besides there are things that a student must know that don’t directly pertain to the specific job.

Salv: What sort of things?

Sag: How to write essays and work in groups, for instance.

Salv: Why must a cook know how to write an essay?

Simp: Well a cook does not come to a university for an education.

Salv: A cook needs no education?

Simp: He needs on-the-job training or to go to a culinary institute.

Salv: Is on-the-job training education?

Simp: Of a sort.

Salv: But, if Charlotte’s friend can learn the knowledge he needs on his job as a cook, what is the reason for going to a university for an education?

Simp: There is no reason, if he wants to be a cook. But some jobs are much more demanding that cooking. They require years of education and the development of complex skills. Employers in these fields are looking to hire someone who is ready to work right away. It is up to the employee to obtain those skills.

Salv: Seems like a raw deal to me.

Simp: Why?

Salv: Restaurants will pay their employees to learn the skills they need, but these other employers expect their employees to pay a whole heap of money for job skills. Cooking doesn’t sound so bad, if you ask me.

Simp: It just wouldn’t work for the employers to do the training. That is best left to those who specialize in skill development, universities and colleges.

Salv: Hold up a second. I think I am confused again.

Simp: Why?

Salv: I had thought you said that education is imparting knowledge. But now you say that a student learns skills at a university. So I can’t tell which it is—imparting knowledge or gaining skills?

Sag: I would think both skills and knowledge are important.

Salv: I see. There are certain skills, like writing essays, and various kinds of knowledge, like programming languages that comprise education.

Sag: Yes.

Salv: And since there are many jobs, there must be many different educations: one education for the programmer, one for the teacher, and one for the cook.

Sag: Exactly.

Salv: Hmm, I know I’m probably missing something, but I don’t see why a programmer would go to a university.

Sag: What do you mean that a programmer would not want to go to a university?

The Server arrives with lunch.

Fabio: Here you are. I have your salads for you. Is there anything else I can get for you now?

Simp: Not at the moment. Thanks.

Fabio: I do not want to impose, but based on your earlier questions, I have asked our house nutritionist, Lemuel Gullet, to come over so he can address any concerns you might have about health. Lemuel?

Lemuel: I understand you had some questions about our menus?

Salv: Just that the approaches to nutrition and health in your menus seem, well, if I may say, rather contradictory. So I was wondering what you meant by health.

Salv [to his companions]: I hope you don’t mind if I ask.

Sag: By all means.

Lemuel: I am tickled you have taken an interest. At the All Seasons, our motto, taken from the famous poem, is “Health is Beauty and Beauty is Health.”

Sag: You mean truth.

Lemuel: Indeed I do. For our motto expresses a profound truth. Look around you. Are not those who are healthy also beautiful? The beauty they display from their pleasing gait to their rosy cheeks speaks of their health.

Sag: No, “Truth is Beauty and Beauty is Truth.” I meant that you substituted health for truth. … In your motto.

Lemuel: Exactly. It is true that there is no substitution for health. I agree completely. We thus design our menus in a way that will help our guests to achieve simultaneously health and beauty. Now different guests have different desires as to how best to achieve those dual goals, and so we cater to their desires. It is all rather beautiful.

Salv: Can an ugly person be healthy?

Simp: You know, Solomon, perhaps you could take this up later with our sage nutritionist.

Salv: Of course. Perhaps later, Mr. Gullet.

Lemuel: I am available any time.

Server and Lemuel Gullet leave.

 

Education Inculcates Habits

Salv: OK, back to programmers. Why couldn’t an enterprising, smart young person learn programming without attending a university?

Simp: You mean by attending a community college, I presume?

Salv: Not at all. When a student learns programming, doesn’t he learn from books?

Sag: Yes. Of course.

Salv: Could he not then simply read and study those books on his own? I suppose a computer and some software would be required. But these do not seem like insurmountable obstacles.

Sag: Perhaps some might. But it is not as easy as it sounds. It takes time and dedication. Students need to be motivated to work hard. Few students would have the self-discipline to pursue such a course of study.

Salv: So what a university offers is a means of motivating students?

Simp: Yes.

Salv: And how does it do that?

Simp: With grades, deadlines, and a degree. Students are paying for their education. If they do not work hard, they will not succeed, and it will cost more to continue taking classes. Besides, good grades enhance a student’s job prospects.

Salv: These are all external motivations imposed upon them so they can get what they desire. Carrot and stick stuff, right?

Sag: Yes.

Salv: Does it work? Maybe it’s different in college, but I remember our high school days, and we spent more effort trying to avoid studying than it would have taken just to do the dang assignments. Carrots didn’t quite cut it, for me at least.

Simp: That does continue to be an issue, naturally.

Salv: Then these methods do not teach students to be self-disciplined.

Sag: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that.

Salv: You would say that students do learn self-discipline?

Sag: Of course.

Salv: I see. They arrive unable to pursue a course of study without deadlines, grades, and a degree, but after they leave, they are no longer dependent on such things.

Simp: I do not know why we are talking about self-discipline. It is a character trait. It is not part of education at all. It is not the purpose of the university to teach self-discipline.

Salv: That’s great. If what you say is true, that self-discipline is a character trait, those students who have that character trait will be motivated to work hard regardless of whether or not they attend a university. So, perhaps such students could succeed on their own, while others will have to pay for the university to goad them with a carrot and a stick.

Sag: I am not sure I can agree with Roger’s position. I think that teaching self-discipline is part of a good education.

Salv: And is self-discipline a skill?

Sag: Not really.

Salv: Is it knowledge?

Sag: No, not that either.

Salv: What is it? I thought you said that education is the imparting of skills and knowledge, but now it seems we must add a third. Go ahead then. What is self-discipline?

Sag: I would call it a habit.

Salv: Alright. Now we see that education imparts skills, knowledge, and habits. Would you both agree?

Sag: Most definitely.

The server approaches the table.

Fabio: All done here?

Sag: Yes.

Fabio: Is there anything else I can get you? [passes out dessert menus]

Salv: I would like a cup of coffee.

Fabio: Yes of course. Coffees all around?

Sag: Please.

Simp: Yes.

Fabio: Very good.

 

The Role of the Teacher

Sag: Where were we?

Salv: Education imparts knowledge, skills, and habits like self-discipline.

Simp: Right. But all this talk of self-motivated students is all rather academic, isn’t it? Students can’t get an education on their own, no matter how self-disciplined and hard working.

Salv: Why not?

Simp: There is more to education than can be found in books. The professors are a key ingredient to the process. They give assignments and lectures to help the student to understand that information. They grade papers and provide feedback which is critical to student advancement.

Salv: I suppose you must be right about that.

Sag: Of course he is.

Salv: And the better professors will undoubtedly help students more than those who are not as experienced and skilled.

Simp: Indeed. Which is why it is paramount that we retain the highest quality faculty.

Salv: By that do you mean the highest quality teachers or researchers? I heard that many university professors are hired for their research potential.

Simp: I should think they are the same.

Salv: Really, why?

Simp: Research experience gives a professor greater insight into his field, insight he can pass on to students.

Salv: And that stuff doesn’t go over the students’ heads?

Simp: Not if the professor is skilled at communicating at the students’ level.

Salv: Yeah. See that’s where I get caught up with this teacher/researcher model. At the auto shop, I’ve got some guys that do the repair work. These guys are amazing at figuring out what’s wrong. But I would never let them near a customer. That would be a disaster. They’re not cut out for it. Then there are guys who deal with the customers. They are great at meeting the customers at their level, answering questions, that sort of thing. They typically don’t have the knack for actual repair work though. So I got to wondering about the teacher and researcher. It might be the same deal, right? So to test it out, I mentioned it to a couple of shop buddies with kids in college. They launched into all sorts of stories their kids told them about teachers. Some were grad students who couldn’t teach very well. And then there were the stories about the star researcher-profs who talk over the students’ heads. Made me a bit nervous, to tell you the truth.

Simp: Teaching is clearly a skill that needs to be fostered. Frankly, not all professors are good teachers. But the research opportunities they provide students more than make up for it I should think.

Sag: And if I may add, the smaller residential colleges such as Brownstone College where I am from tend to have a greater focus on the quality of teaching. Perhaps Charlotte should look in that direction.

Salv: That sounds promising. Teachers at small colleges are better trained in teaching?

Sag: Better trained? Ah. I don’t know about that, but I can certainly say that we take teaching ability more seriously in tenure and promotion decisions.

Salv: They don’t get any specific training, though.

Sag: Yes, in their field of expertise, they do.

Salv: But they take some classes in graduate school on teaching.

Simp: Of course not.

Salv: Why not?

Simp: Graduate school is a preparation and training for research.

Salv: Help me out here. These professors go to school to learn how to do research in their field. Then they are hired as teachers without any specific training in that job they were hired to do.

Sag: You overstate it, Solomon. Part of their job is teaching, yes, but part is also research. And, of course, they are trained in the subject they are teaching, which counts for a great deal.

Salv: So how do they gain expertise in teaching?

Sag: They figure it out as they go, I would imagine. I did. These are very bright and capable people, you realize.

Salv: No doubt they are very bright. So are my mechanics. I still wouldn’t put them in front of the customers.

Sag: I’m not sure PhD’s and mechanics make a fair comparison.

Salv: Ok. Let me sum this up, and you help me if I make a mistake. Professors spend years in school learning their discipline. They also learn how to pursue research. When they are hired, they have to figure out the teaching part on their own since they were not given any training in teaching and receive no guidance from their employer. College students then pay a whole gob of money to be taught by these professors because the professors are really important to the student learning process. How am I doing? OK? Now the kind of training that these professors did get was in their discipline, so that they can impart that knowledge to the students. But that knowledge is typically contained in books, so that what students really need is someone to help them get the information from the books. They need someone skilled in teaching, which is the only skill that is not promoted. What am I missing?

Simp: You know, Solomon, I always wondered how you magically avoided detention in high school. Seems like every week you were in the vice principle’s office, and you always seemed to weasel out of it. I am beginning to think this is how you did it.

Salv: What do you mean by that?

Simp: You have a silver tongue, my friend.

Salv: Are you referring to Proverbs? “The tongue of the righteous is choice silver.”

 

The Degree

Sag: All right, all right. Solomon, since you don’t seem to like our system of preparing professors, why don’t you offer some other alternative.

Salv: Maybe you could pick out those professors that have a knack for teaching or enjoy it and work hard at it and let them do the teaching.

Simp: That’s impractical. Some would have huge teaching loads while others, none at all. Resentments and infighting would abound.

Sag: I am afraid Roger’s analysis is all too true.

Salv: What about these MOOCs?

Simp: I have heard of them but am not impressed.

Sag: What are they?

Salv: In searching around, I have come across a new movement called MOOC, massive open online courses. It seems as if a number of schools, like Stanford and Harvard, are putting the lectures of their best teachers online free for any who wish to learn. Another organization founded by a Stanford professor has a whole course on computer programming with potential job placement opportunities for those that finish the course.

Simp: But without grades and assignments, I presume.

Salv: Not sure about grades, but from what I gather, many courses have assignments, quizzes, and even certificates of achievement which allow a student to move forward in a sequence. The assignments are graded electronically, which provides instantaneous feedback on how a student is doing. This meets your requirements, does it not? An enterprising student could certainly learn all that is necessary for a computer job through this method—and do it for a rather cheaper price.

Simp: Perhaps. I have not really looked into what is offered. But in any case the student will not end up with a degree.

Salv: I am not sure why that matters.

Simp: The degree is essential.

Salv: Isn’t the purpose of the degree, according to you, to help motivate the student to work hard? If these programs can provide an education with top professors, with built-in motivational features, the degree is obsolete.

Simp: Motivation is only part of the value of a degree. A degree is also an indication that the student has completed a full university education.

Salv: Well, here I am at a loss again. I thought an education is for the purpose of a job. Don’t the online classes offered by Stanford, a rather well respected university, prepare a student for a job?

Simp: They may or may not, I don’t know. But the point is that to get a job, you need a degree. Everyone knows this. I am astonished that you seem unaware of the most obvious truths.

Salv: I know that’s what everyone says. I hear it all the time from friends, relatives, the news. But everyone is also saying that times are a changin’. So maybe we ought to look beyond what everyone is saying and ask why. Now you say education is for a career. So to my way of thinking, the key is to get a good education. If the only way to do that is to get a degree, then so be it. But if there are other, cheaper ways, then why not try them? What am I missing here?

Simp: What you are missing, Solomon, is that these other ways you refer to do not offer the best education, and the employers know that. The best colleges and universities offer the best educations. The granting of a degree is a mark that a student has received an education in keeping with the quality of the institution.

Salv: I see. So a student with a degree from a prestigious university is better educated than the student from a small unrecognized college.

Simp: I think that is fair.

Salv: Well then, sounds like the student who has taken courses from the online computer science program at Stanford is better educated than a computer science student from a small college.

Sag: Back to that program again? Did you not understand that there is no degree attached to that program?

Salv: Yes, yes, but Roger has claimed that a student from the most prestigious university is best educated, and Stanford is very prestigious.

Sag: But there is more to education than just taking online classes.

Salv: Is that because online classes are not sufficient to prepare for a job in computer science?

Sag: Yes.

Simp: No.

Sag: No?

Simp:. Anyone can take those free online courses. Not anyone can be admitted to Stanford and get a degree.

Salv: And why does that make for a better education?

Simp: Students who graduate from Stanford are the best and brightest. Getting accepted is very difficult. The competition is intense. Thus those that are able to get in and make it through the program are necessarily going to be better educated than those who take a few online classes.

Salv: I am a little confused here. Are you saying that Stanford grads receive the best education or are the best educated?

Simp: I don’t recognize this distinction you are making.

Salv: OK. Umm. … Take a couple of jocks. Bill, say, is very talented and athletic. Tom, on the other hand, is a bit uncoordinated but has a passion for the game. Even with years of training, poor Tom will never surpass the skill of Bill. Bill joins a team with a poor coach and Tom joins a team with a good coach. Which of the two will receive better coaching?

Sag: Tom.

Salv: And will he improve?

Sag: Yes.

Salv: More than the Bill?

Sag: Undoubtedly.

Salv: And which will play better at the end of the season?

Sag: From the way that you have set it up, Bill.

Salv: So maybe schools are like coaches. The Bills of the world go to Stanford, and the Toms go to less prestigious schools. It’s possible that Tom gets the better education, but Bill is still a little more capable.

Sag: I see your point, but you have left something out. Because Stanford only admits the best students, the professors can take those students further than other institutions can. The course of study can be more rigorous. Students who get in and are able to complete the program are therefore more desirable to employers.

Salv: Well then, suppose Bill decided not to go to Stanford but study on his own, taking free online courses or studying from books used by Stanford students. He ought to be just as capable as the Stanford grad. Employers ought to snap Bill up.

Simp: No, Bud has been sucked into your very clever web. You see, the Stanford grad may or may not be better educated. When you asked if the online courses could do as good of a job as the university, Bud was too embarrassed to admit the truth of the matter. The point is that a Stanford grad is more employable due to the reputation of his degree.

Salv: Ah ha. Now we get to it. Students go to Stanford not for an education but to have a reputation which will get them an excellent career. Is this how it goes?

Sag: No, no, that cannot be right.

Simp: I am afraid that is the honest truth.

Sag: But at least, in the process, those students get an excellent education.

Salv: By which you mean they are given the prestige of an excellent degree.

Sag: No, I mean that they acquire information, skills, and habits that will aid them in their chosen career. They will be better qualified by what they learn at school.

Salv: Then it seems that the degree is not an indicator of whether a student has been educated. We have agreed, I think, that a person can obtain an education without going to a university (at least in some fields now and maybe more in the future) and that even if he does attend the university, the prestige of the degree is not necessarily related to the quality of the education. Instead, the degree is a sort of stamp of approval indicating that a graduate has potential in a career. Students who have the goal of getting a satisfying job must therefore obtain two things: an education to prepare for the job and a degree certificate which loosely ranks them according to their employability.

The server returns.

Fabio: Your dessert menus and conference amenities guide.

Simp: What’s this? [looks at guide]

Fabio: As guests, you have the opportunity to enjoy many of the world class amenities we offer at All Seasons.

Salv: My, what an extensive offering. Are all of the amenities listed here included in our conference fees?

Fabio: I don’t believe so. There is a fee schedule on the back.

Salv: Ah, I see. It looks as if only the beauty related amenities are free.

Fabio: Indeed. The hair and skin center is the core of our resort health program. The exercise, gym, and yoga offerings are specializations.

Salv: So the main thrust of the program is to look better?

Fabio: Health is Beauty and Beauty is Health, as they say.

Salv: Right. But what of the anorexic model or the buck-toothed track star?

Fabio: But if you look beautiful and healthy, people will believe you are healthy. Don’t you see?

Salv: I believe I do. Thank you.

Fabio: My pleasure.

 

Education for the Whole Person

Sag: Somehow it seems as if you are right that a degree is not terribly related to the quality of education, although I am not comfortable with this conclusion.

Simp: It is clearly ridiculous.

Salv: But you were the ones who came up with it. What is ridiculous?

Simp: The implications of this line of thinking are untenable. You have boxed education into too narrow a scope. According to what you have suggested, students could get a perfectly good education without going to a university or any college at all for that matter. But there is so much more offered by the university experience than simply attending courses and getting grades. Students have opportunities in athletics, arts, science research, journalism, and internships. They can interact with brilliant professors who can give them insights into the subject matter at hand. They can gain invaluable social experience, learning to interact with peers and superiors. They make lasting and important relationships, relationships which will enrich them in the future, both in their careers and personally. Furthermore, the university education prepares them for life in ways that do not relate to a job at all. They learn about their culture and gain insight into its problems and possible solutions. They can form opinions about what social causes they are interested in pursuing. There is a mix of ideas and an energy that is created by the intersection of many diverse and intellectually curious people that cannot be achieved anywhere else. You see, the university is much more than a degree mill for a career.

Sag: My thinking exactly. The university education is to develop the whole person. It goes beyond the career.

Salv: Ok guys, what’s going on? All this time you have been telling me that education is for getting a career—that it imparts knowledge, skills, and habits necessary for the job market. Or if not that, then it gives a student a degree with a reputation which will provide gainful employment. Now you say that I have been too narrow. I am not sure what to make of it. I must be getting muddled.

Sag: Well, since you seem to be so unsatisfied with our answers, why don’t you tell us what education is for?

Salv: If I knew I wouldn’t be asking. But look, maybe we’ve made a break through here with Roger’s description of what a university does. Can we look at that a bit?

Simp: Please.

Salv: From what you have said, the purpose of the university is not merely to aid students in finding a career. Right?

Simp: Undoubtedly.

Salv: It includes personal enrichment, learning about culture, developing relationships, stuff like that.

Sag: Yes exactly!

Salv: And you have classes to teach these things?

Simp: In a few cases, but most of that sort of learning is extracurricular.

Salv: For the part taught in classes, what classes are they?

Simp: Well, we have a general education portion of the curriculum that is separate from a student’s major which allows students to explore such topics as science, literature, fine arts, history, philosophy, and many others.

Salv: And these courses are not aimed at helping a student in a career?

Simp: Not specifically, no.

Salv: They are for some other purpose?

Simp: Necessarily.

Salv: What purpose?

Sag: I think I can answer that. These classes in the sciences and humanities provide a broad base of education to help the student become well rounded.

Salv: Becoming well rounded sounds like a worthy goal. But tell me, do people want to become well rounded for some further goal, or is it just to be well rounded? For instance, we don’t exercise just for exercising but to get strong and healthy or to play a sport. But we seek to be content just because we like to be content. So is well roundedness for the sake of something else, as with exercising, or for its own sake, as with contentment?

Sag: It is for the sake of something else, assuredly.

Salv: What is for the sake of?

Sag: We live in a complicated world, as you well know. Students are constantly faced with issues of great import in their lives, tossed on the waves of circumstance and culture. To find a way to navigate these treacherous seas is a task we must all take seriously. A broad base of education helps students to understand the waters, to learn the dangers and the rewards.

Salv: Very poetic! A skill no doubt you gained in general education courses.

Sag: No doubt.

 

Education for a Satisfying Life

Salv: I can relate to this ‘Navigating the waters’ business. Seems like my life has had more than its share of whitecaps and hurricanes. You’ve got to be a good navigator for a shot at happiness.

Sag: I am not sure I would use the word happy. Perhaps we could better describe the outcome as satisfaction or contentment in life.

Salv: Sounds good! Then you’d say that the general education portion of a college education is aimed at helping students find satisfaction and contentment in life, while the major is aimed at helping students find a career.

Simp: If I may interject, you have presented a false dichotomy. Surely you must see that finding a good career is a critical part of a satisfying life. All of the students and their parents realize this, which is why students come. The general education and the major are aiming at the same goal.

Salv: Now, that seems like a good scheme. The general education courses teach students what constitutes a satisfying life, while the major courses help them toward a career.

Simp: I would put it just a little bit differently. It would be more accurate to say that the gen-ed courses help students pursue what they believe to be a satisfying life.

Salv: What they believe? But you do teach them what makes life satisfying, right?

Simp: Definitely not.

Salv: Huh. Well that’s a stumper if I ever heard one. Why not?

Simp: It simply isn’t done. It is not appropriate. We would never impose upon students a specific perspective about what makes life satisfying.

Salv: Not appropriate? I just don’t get it. If they come to school to learn how to live a satisfying life, they need to know what that is. How much more ‘appropriate’ can you get? Or do they all know what makes life satisfying before they come to school?

Sag: They certainly do not come with this knowledge. If fact, if I may be blunt, many students are woefully lacking in this sort of knowledge. They often make atrocious decisions which lead to all sorts of problems and pain down the road.

Simp: Not that it is really for us to judge, of course.

Salv: This is nuts. I must have misunderstood. Didn’t you say that the aim of the university was to help students live a satisfying and contented life?

Sag: Indeed we did.

Salv: And students who come are lacking in the knowledge of what constitutes such a life.

Simp: Generally speaking, yes.

Salv: And yet you have no classes which teach them this knowledge?

Sag: Well not directly, no.

Simp: It would be a violation of the university’s commitment to the freedom of ideas and expression. Besides, there is little agreement on the question.

Salv: Let me get this straight. The aim of the university is to help students have a satisfying life, but you guys don’t even know what that is. And even if you did know, it would be against your principles to teach. Is this your take?

Sag: When you put it that way it does sound rather strange.

Simp: The students must figure this out for themselves.

Salv: But the school won’t offer guidance since there is no consensus on the answer.

Sag: There may be no consensus, but guidance can still be offered. Students are given the opportunity to consider various positions from different perspectives.

Salv: By ‘different’, you mean the perspectives disagree on what the good life is.

Sag: Indeed.

Salv: And the disagreement is presented to help students sift out the true perspectives from the false?

Simp: I would say students find their own personal view about the good life.

Salv: But the aim of the university is that their personal view corresponds to the true view of the good life.

Simp: What is true may differ between students.

Salv: What satisfies one may not satisfy another?

Sag: Exactly!

Salv: For instance, one student may be satisfied being a doctor, another an engineer.

Simp: Clearly.

Salv: One may be happy with great riches and status, another with poverty and obscurity.

Simp: Obviously not.

Salv: One may be happy to devote his life to the service of others and another to crime.

Simp: How inane. What is your point?

Salv: Just that some actions lead to a good life and some don’t. If a student believes crime leads to a good life, that’s wrong.

Simp: Well of course, but…

Salv: So are you changing your mind?

Simp: What? How so?

Salv: You said what is true about satisfaction in life may differ between students, that it was a personal choice, but now you say that at least some aspects of the good life are the same for all.

Simp: Well.

The server approaches again.

Fabio: What can I get you for dessert this evening?

Sag: I’ll take the berry cobbler.

Simp: The tiramisu, please.

Fabio: Of course. And for you sir?

Salv: Mmm. So many good choices, but I am not sure they are all healthy for me.

Fabio: You are your own best judge of health. “The guest knows best,” we always say.

Salv: Why do you say that?

Fabio: You are in the best place to judge since it is, after all, your own body. We pride ourselves in helping each guest achieve his or her own personal goals for health.

Salv: Except a doctor or nutritionist would obviously know better than I what is healthy, right? It must be more or less the same for all.

Fabio: Oh no, it would directly contradict our mission to tell you what is healthy. Health is a very personal choice, not at all the same for all.

Salv: Well then, I shall have a plate of Twinkies and some jelly-filled doughnuts.

Fabio: Ahh. Of course we have advisors to assist our guests to avoid clearly unhealthy choices.

Salv: So your advisors know what is unhealthy. Do they also know what is healthy?

Fabio: These are excellent questions. Shall I get Lemuel to discuss them with you?

Salv: No, that’s alright. I got carried away as usual. Just bring me the raspberry gelato, please.

Fabio: Certainly.

 

What Constitutes a Satisfying Life

Salv: Since we agreed that a good and satisfying life has many elements common to all, would you say that those elements are commonly known?

Sag: I think we all have personal beliefs of what constitutes the good life.

Salv: And this is what you wish to impart to your students? This is a part of the goal of education at the university?

Sag: Like Roger said before, some of those beliefs differ among the faculty. But generally speaking, there are a few core perspectives which are broadly shared among the faculty.

Salv: Could you suggest some of them?

Simp: The most important one, the one the students and their parents are most concerned about, is a good career. This is still, in my opinion, the key component of what we offer at a university.

Salv: Because a good career is essential to a good life.

Simp: In nearly all cases.

Salv: So a graduate who goes on to be a doctor or lawyer or entrepreneur due to his university training would count as a success and have a satisfying life?

Simp: Yes.

Salv: Does it matter what sort of doctor or lawyer or entrepreneur the graduate becomes?

Simp: Some will be more successful than others, of course, but the point is that each will have found a satisfying career.

Salv: So a lawyer or entrepreneur who devotes his career to making money at the expense of others would still be considered a success?

Sag: No, no.

Salv: A doctor who ignores his wife and family for the sake of his work would be a success?

Simp: Look. Not everyone uses his education for the better. The university cannot be responsible for bad choices made by its graduates.

Salv: Of course not. I am not trying to blame anyone. I am trying to figure out if there are other aspects of a satisfying life beyond simply a career, as we alluded to previously.

Simp: I see. Then, yes, there are other aspects, naturally.

Salv: Would you say that those with low wage jobs are unsatisfied?

Sag: I would think some are. Yes.

Salv: But not all. I got a new kid apprenticing for minimum wage, and he seems pretty darn happy.

Sag: No. Not all.

Salv: What about those with high wage jobs? I know I am not in any position to know for sure, but I would bet there are a lot of pretty miserable people with really big incomes. So do those who have great careers always have satisfying lives?

Sag: Not necessarily.

Salv: So obtaining a good job is, at best, loosely connected with having a satisfying life.

Sag: I have to agree with you. Ultimately, contentment in life is not closely related to income.

Simp: Wait a minute. You have assumed here that what makes a career ‘good’ is income level. But there are other factors which lead to satisfaction in a career.

Salv: That’s a good point. I didn’t pick my job because of its income potential. So students are going to school to get an education which will give them a job which will satisfy them, regardless of the wages.

Simp: That is certainly a big part of it.

Salv: Those graduates who get the careers they want when they enter college will have satisfying lives, and those who don’t get their desired careers won’t.

Simp: More or less, yes.

Salv: Are some who love their job still miserable? And are there some who dislike their job and are quite satisfied?

Simp: Well. I suppose, yes.

Salv: So it’s no different than the wages. A satisfying life is only loosely related to the career.

Simp: But the students are all convinced that their career is the key ingredient to a good life.

Salv: If the students are not quite thinking right on this issue, then why not give them what they need instead of what they want?

Simp: That is completely out of the question. If you do not offer students what they want, they will go to a different school where they can get what they want. Education is, unfortunately, a market driven endeavor.

Sag: This has unfortunately become increasingly the case. There is an unhealthy competition for students in my opinion. For instance, we are having to upgrade dorms and recreational facilities to attract students.

Salv: You are competing among each other for students?

Simp: Of course.

Salv: With recreational facilities and dorms?

Sag: By offering facilities, programs, and amenities they find enticing.

Simp: Exactly.

Salv: So it sounds as if the students you attract are not particularly interested in learning about the things that lead to a satisfying life but in other things, like nice facilities and programs. Why would you want such students to attend, let alone compete for them?

Simp: Nearly all the students going to college are interested in these ‘other’ things. If we did not offer them, we would soon lose our student population and face significant layoffs and cutbacks. Don’t get me wrong, we are a highly selective university and only admit the best students who meet exacting requirements.

Salv: They are very capable, then.

Simp: Indeed they are. Some of the best.

Salv: But graduating capable students is not your aim, is that not right?

Simp: Why not? Capable students are more likely to succeed in life.

Salv: They are capable of using their skills and knowledge to have a satisfying life. But if they have the wrong idea of what constitutes that life, then they might be spinning their wheels, or worse yet, making things worse for themselves. When you think about it, maybe it would be better to leave them uneducated. They would less capable of doing themselves harm.

Simp: Hmm.

Salv: I am coming to think that perhaps the aim of the university is not to help students to find a satisfying life. Your faculty disagrees as to what it is; it is against your policy to teach it; you compete to attract students who are not interested in what you claim to offer. This is a mighty strange way of going about your business.

 

Education to Benefit Society

Simp: I cannot agree with your conclusion, although I am not sure at the moment how we have gotten here. But in any case, we have neglected to mention the chief aim of the university.

Salv: All this time we’ve been talking, and you left out the chief aim?

Simp: It never came up. Nevertheless, I would say that the university exists to enhance the quality of life for society as a whole.

Salv: Oh. That’s very interesting. I would love to probe that a little.

Simp: I suppose I have no choice.

Salv: I’m sorry. I can see I’ve become a bother. The wife always tells me I ask too many questions. We can talk about something else. I was just excited to talk to some people in the college business.

Simp: No, no. Please, ask away.

Salv: Are you sure?

Sag: Please.

Salv: So, how does a university enhance the quality of life of society?

Simp: Our world renowned faculty engages in research of the highest caliber, research which has and will have an impact on society at large. Furthermore, our graduates satisfy employers’ need for highly qualified employees. Those employers in turn drive the economy.

Salv: Do the research and the trained employees help society in the same way or in different ways?

Simp: Research improves the quality of life for everyone by helping us understand and improve the world we live in. More importantly, it keeps the U.S. competitive by creating new and innovative technologies. Providing a trained workforce has a similar effect since the graduates help our country to retain our leading role in the world.

Salv: It sounds like it would be a bad thing for the U.S. to lose its economic leadership.

Simp: Absolutely.

Salv: And why would that be?

Simp: Are you serious? Is it not obvious?

Salv: Well, the newsmen all say it’s important, but they never explain why.

Simp: Right. OK, let’s see. Well for one, political power is associated with economic power. Both economic and political leadership means we have a strong influence in the policies and direction of the global economic network. This naturally enough means that we garner the best economic opportunity for the citizens and businesses of our country.

Salv: Good economic opportunity being very important.

Simp: Of course. It raises the standard of living.

Salv: Which I’m guessing is good for the same reason that helping a graduate find a good career is good, more wealth and all of the advantages that brings.

Simp: Yes. I think you are getting this exactly.

Salv: So I am confused.

Sag: Oh no. We were making such good progress.

Salv: When we were talking about careers, I thought we decided that having a high paying job was only loosely connected to a satisfying life. There were other factors which were more important than a great career.

Simp: Ah. Yes. With individuals, I think that the argument should be made that satisfaction does not come primarily from monetary advantages. However, at the macroeconomic level, I think we need to prioritize economic advancement.

Salv: There are not more important things than economic advancement?

Simp: There are certainly other things which are important—freedom, equality, justice. But the first priority must be economic growth.

Salv: I don’t know. I was reading a history book a couple of years back about an example of a nation which was really struggling financially. Eventually the economy stabilized and unemployment went down. Things started picking up, and the people were really happy with the guy who turned things around. But it didn’t turn out too well in the end.

Simp: A single counter example does not prove a point.

Sag: Which nation were you talking about, by the way?

Salv: Germany in the 1930s.

Sag: Mmm…

Salv: I am all for economic development, don’t get me wrong. I just wonder if all of the research that leads to economic opportunity is as good as it sounds.

Sag: Some of the research does, in fact, focus on non-monetary benefits. Roger described research as improving the quality of life for everyone by helping us understand and improve the world we live in.

Salv: OK. I get that. I’m probably nitpicking. But just to make sure I’m really following you, what sorts of things does research understand and improve?

Simp: Well there are all sorts of things. There is research in agriculture and electronics. University research hospitals have clearly made advances in medical technology, such as organ transplants. Another great example is the development of computer models to increase the flow and safety of traffic, which leads to fewer traffic deaths.

Salv: I see. Research saves lives.

Simp: Yes, innumerable lives.

Salv: Ok. But doesn’t it also take lives?

Simp: People take lives, not research.

Salv: But take cars as an example of research. Wouldn’t you say that cars are one of the most dangerous technologies that we have? Lots of people die in car wrecks.

Simp: Which is exactly why the research on traffic flow is so important.

Salv: So we create a technology, like cars, which ends up causing many deaths. To solve this problem, we create another technology to fix the problems of the former technology. Is that right? And the ‘fixing’ technology may have other unforeseen problems.

Sag: What possible problems could be created by improving traffic safety?

Salv: Do you know where most of the organs come from for organ transplants?

Simp: Ah.

Salv: From traffic accidents.

Simp: But surely this is a special case.

Salv: Maybe so. I’m no expert. But aren’t there lots of ‘improvements’ that have negative consequences? I am not sure how much the research helps or hurts society.

Simp: These are the types of questions that can only be solved by doing statistical research into our technologies and their uses.

Salv: Hmm. Ok, suppose a researcher were to study how a popular and widely used technology affected society, and the result was that it did more harm than good. Would we get rid of the technology or do more research to figure how to fix the bad parts?

Sag: I get your point, Solomon. Research in itself is a two-edged sword. It can do harm and good. And it is hard to tell beforehand which of the two is greater. I think it is important to realize, however, that the intent of the researchers is for their research to become beneficial. They are convinced that what they are doing will enhance our knowledge, which in turn will lead to improvements.

Salv: In that sense, they are like the students.

Sag: What sense do you mean?

Salv: The student and the researcher want satisfying lives for themselves and for others. They want to do something good. I myself am in the same situation. I find doing something good for others is really satisfying. The problem comes when we don’t know what is good, either for ourselves or for society.

Simp: As I have been saying, you keep going on and on about knowing what a satisfying life is. It is getting rather annoying, if I may be frank.

Salv: Most certainly you should be frank. How can I help my daughter with choosing a college without frank and honest discussion? Are you thinking, then, that knowing what constitutes a satisfying life is peripheral to the subject of research?

Simp: I think that everyone assumes that they know what constitutes a satisfying life.

Salv: Do you mean everyone doing research, or everyone who has taken a degree from a university, or all adults, or something else?

Simp: All adults, I would think. Everyone’s actions are directed to those things that bring them satisfaction. They have an end in view.

Salv: My thinking exactly. Which brings us back to that very question that put us on this track. What sorts of “ends” bring satisfaction and contentment? Should we teach students the means to obtain the ends of their own choosing, or should we teach them which ends are better than others, or should we teach them how to figure out good ends for themselves?

Sag: I am seeing your point.

Salv: And if the educators themselves are confused or in disagreement about those ends, won’t they work at cross purposes? Or worse, if they feel as if it is inappropriate to discuss the issue, then how can they possibly help?

Sag: Right.

Salv: And if the students are unaware of what brings satisfaction to life, but they think they know, how can they choose an institution which offers a good education? Wouldn’t it be better if the educators help the students to learn what constitutes a satisfying life rather than cater to their poorly formed beliefs? Otherwise, the university has become a product offered to consumers rather than an institution designed to educate the youth.

Sag: Your questions are deeply disconcerting. What do you think education should look like?

Salv: That is exactly the question I’ve been trying to answer. I can say, though, that this conversation has been helpful.

Sag: How so?

Salv: I think I am going encourage Charlotte to look for a college or university that helps students raise these questions about what makes life satisfying. It’s not like it’s a new question. Perhaps she can explore what other people have said and weigh their answers carefully. It’s great to gain knowledge and skills for careers, but I think it might be a mistake for her to ignore these other issues.

 

Copyright May 2013 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Chris Swanson