When I went to college a few decades ago, I was looking for a small college in a small town – I was younger than usual, and was afraid of being overwhelmed at a huge university or in a big city. I certainly wanted a good education and interesting classes but – if the truth is told – I really didn’t have a clue what to look for. The guidance counselor at my high school pointed me in the direction of Carleton College, and the next fall, I was on my way to Minnesota for the first time.
It was certainly not an easy school! Several of us who took History 10 from a brand-new faculty member that Fall showed up in the Dean of Women’s office begging for intervention or grades of “Incomplete” because we just couldn’t figure out how to write the papers this professor wanted – and we had a hard time understanding the books we were reading. Even though all of us had graduated from really good high schools, the gap between what was expected of us as high school seniors and as college freshmen seemed enormous.
I don’t remember all of the books on the reading list, but I have firm memories of reading Freud’s “Civilization and Its Discontents” and E. P. Thompson’s “The Making of the English Working Class” without fully understanding them. Sociology 10 used an early edition of Coser and Rosenberg’s “Sociological Theory: A Book of Readings” which was filled with extended excerpts from the original authors – long German-style sentences and all.
When I compare those books with the pre-digested textbook pablum that we – and I mean “we” because I do it too – offer first year students today, I sit in stunned amazement. On the one hand, my students struggle to master the the concepts even in the best of the “learner-centered” textbooks which come complete with chapter summaries, websites with practice test questions, outlines, and flashcards. On the other hand, the books I had in college put me face-to-face with real thinkers and asked that I understand and grapple with their ideas. No firehose of government statistics, flashy photos, graphs and charts, and thousands of details to remember, as we have in the textbook. No – Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx and Carleton’s own Thorstein Veblen simply assumed that we – like they – knew the facts about the world. As college freshmen, we didn’t – but we didn’t want to look bad, so we just did a lot of other reading on the side to catch up. In the process, we learned to be independent scholars,. The real question was “why?” not “what’s happening?” and, with that question, we were invited into a world where ideas mattered and were taken seriously.
A report in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education lists Carleton College among the 58 private colleges and universities that have topped the $50,000 per year tuition+room-and-board mark, although just barely ($50,205). It was probably close to the top when I went there, too. From what I can tell, they are still able to lure in bright young students who discover, almost immediately, that the intellectual work they’ve done before is much less than what is now being asked of them. They may wail a bit at first – the Dean of Women certainly seemed to have seen students like my small band many times before. She was not unkind, and she did arrange for us to get a little more time. But her message was pretty clear: “Yes, dear, it really is this difficult. That’s what real academics is like. Instead of asking for the task to be changed, why not figure out how you are going to accomplish it?” But, like my little group, most of them pull themselves together and graduate four years later not only with a lot of knowledge in their heads, but with a suite of attitudes and skills that serves them well wherever life takes them.
While $50,000 is certainly a tremendous amount of money – and I’m glad that these colleges also have financial aid programs that put them within reach of students of very modest means – it nonetheless pales in comparison with the human capital that one “buys” with that sum. The dividends on any investment in education are priceless.
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