Thousands of newly minted college graduates will march into the world this month, graced with credentials that promise brighter prospects in a still-struggling economy.
In the years ahead, we will dutifully measure their unemployment rates, earnings, career choices and – for certain – their alumni donations. And we will find, despite the skepticism of policymakers and pundits who send their own children to college while questioning its value for others, higher education is still very much worth it. The class of 2015 will see all manner of material benefit from earning a degree.
But that’s a bloodless vindication. We now debate the value of higher education in almost exclusively economic terms, but the promise of better earnings doesn’t drive the joy and tears at graduation ceremonies. Almost despite ourselves, there’s still something deeper at work.
“What is the meaning of my life? Why am I here? How do I live a good and meaningful life?” asked UNC history professor Lloyd Kramer.He was speaking last month from the stage at the N.C. Museum of Natural Science, where he was seated alongside Professor Joe Templeton, a renowned chemist and former chairman of the UNC faculty. The two public university instructors were holding a debate about the relative merits of science and the humanities.
In the span of an hour, they quoted C.P. Snow, Ann Lamott, Galileo, a former CEO of DuPont, Cormac McCarthy and a smattering of Scripture. It was the kind of discussion that captures the very best of what universities are meant to do: teach.
Kramer, a noted scholar of the French Revolution, spoke about the lifelong benefits of a rigorous education. “It is the human interactions that define our lives at the end of the day,” he said. “You need resources – inner resources – that the humanities can provide.”
Templeton, who is fond of beginning class sessions with a literary reading, talked about the value of understanding scientific inquiry and of learning to discover things by your own hand. “Science, as I think about it, goes back to building things and doing things,” he said. “I worry we’re losing the ability to hold onto a thought and think about it long enough to have a eureka moment.”
It’s a fair worry.
The deep engagement we expect from a college education – with eureka moments and epiphanies that last far beyond graduation day – is intact but embattled.
Today, 86 percent of college freshmen report “to be able to get a better job” as a primary motivation for enrolling. The rush for internships, resume-building extracurricular activities and job-skill training is intense. Universities are doing their best to accommodate it.
That shift is understandable, given the rising cost of college and stagnating middle-class wages. Remaining economically afloat is more difficult than it used to be, even for those blessed with a college education. Jobs are more tenuous, careers don’t last anywhere near a lifetime, and the competition feels fiercer.
Universities have rolled with this tide, in part because demonstrating economic value is easier than arguing the intrinsic worth of science and the humanities. If an education happens to bolster the happiness or fulfillment of the human beings wandering around inside the economy, that’s increasingly viewed as a side benefit.
And still, Professor Kramer’s challenge lingers. “What is the meaning of my life? Why am I here? How do I live a good and meaningful life?” These are very old questions, and they have survived bouts of economic anxiety deeper than the one we’re in now. They drive us to read books and peer through telescopes and make art and music and all of the other impractical things that still animate life on a college campus.
The same survey that shows most students are studying for a better job also offers some cheer for the old-school vision of higher education. The second most popular reason for going to college (holding steady at 82 percent) is “to learn more about things that interest me.”
That basic human desire is worth celebrating. As the class of 2015 steps into the wider world, a note to the class of 2019: Spend these next few years thinking and doing the kinds of things that justify joy and tears on graduation day. Make sure college is worth it, in ways you can count and ways you can’t.
Eric Johnson is a writer in Chapel Hill. He works for UNC, sits on The News & Observer’s Reader Panel and speaks only for himself.