Salvo 01.02.2020

Elite Education is for Suckers


Classical education is rising up to take its place.

As part of our ongoing efforts to diagnose the failures of higher education, we present three pieces by college students writing “from the ground,” giving firsthand accounts of life in the 21st-century academy.—Eds.

There’s a sucker born every minute.

While historians aren’t sure P.T. Barnum ever said it, America’s elite universities have been proving it true for years.

Generations of America’s high school graduates have been told that the key to financial success (and therefore happiness) is acceptance to and graduation from these institutions.

Department of Labor statistics from 2018 showed that almost 70% of high school graduates were enrolled in colleges and universities. At the same time, Department of Education statistics showed that between 1980 and 2014, average college tuition cost increased by nearly 260% compared to only 120% for all other consumer items.

What is driving American families to spend, borrow, and in some cases bribe their way into these schools?

For most, it is the altogether understandable hope that a college degree will lead to a financially secure future for their children.

More and more parents and students are beginning to ask if it’s worth it. And they aren’t just talking about financial worth.

In a recent essay, “Losing the Class,” Ian Marcus Corbin paints a hopeful picture of college students beginning to doubt both the heretofore unquestioned premise that a happy life begins with a degree in accounting or engineering, and also the liberal orthodoxies and woke culture so dominant on college campuses. Corbin likens those willing to question the status quo to dissidents in the Soviet Union, and, while confessing to some level of hyperbole, he suggests that eventually America’s colleges and universities might experience a fate not dissimilar to that of the Soviets.

A Return to Traditional Education

But not everyone is willing to sit around and wait for this collapse.

Hundreds of small schools are starting up and growing across the country, not only at the college level butmostlyin primary and secondary education. Among these are charter academies like Great Hearts in Arizona and Texas, and independent Catholic schools like St. Augustine and St. Monica Academy (full disclosure: I’m a graduate of this last one).

These schools represent a renaissance in classical education.

They have a core curriculum which forces students to ponder the fundamental questions of humanity: what it means to be an individual, what it means to be part of a community, what it is the human person can know, by what principles is the human person ruled, etc. By attending these traditional schools, students are cultivating the life of the mind, not just learning practical skills for the sake of careers. (Of course, these two things aren’t mutually exclusive.) They are learning to love knowledge for its own sake, act in accordance with virtue, and nurture their rational capabilities. These are the things that human beings were made to do, and these are what can bring them happiness.

Perhaps the collapse Corbin alludes to will be aided by the increasing number of American families looking for a college education that does more than job training. And an increase in demand may be the impetus for some colleges and universities to restore traditional core curriculum.

The reformation process may take a while, and it’s easy to imagine things getting worse before they get better. But there is good reason to be optimistic about the future of American education.

This article has been altered to reflect final edits since it was initially published.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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