Is College for Everyone? Here is What One College Professor Has to Say

Why Go to College in the Twenty-First Century?

As a retiring college professor (this is my final semester), I have lately been reflecting on what advice I would give about college to Christian high-school students and their parents. First, I would advise those of you in this position to think about whether to go to college at all, why to go, if you do choose to go, what to study there, when to go, and where to go (or where not to go).

a teacher giving his class


Whether to go. No longer, in my opinion, should it be assumed that virtually every high-school student should automatically plan to go on to college, lest it be feared that not going means they have already failed in life or are starting life with a basic disadvantage. Such an assumption has only been prevalent in America since around the 1970’s, anyway. Before that, partly due to the cost of college, many high-school graduates took a two-year vocational training or an apprenticeship in a family business and did very well. Even during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, when I worked for my own tuition during the summers on a house-painting crew, I was routinely teased with the name “college boy.” None of the other crew had gone to college, and some of them earned more money annually in skilled trades than I ended up earning as a college professor. What was more important to them was that theirs was a noble calling. They were proud of their quality craftsmanship; it was a vocation from God and still can be, for some. Nowadays, the question is being asked again, because many students come out of college with a huge debt and have no professional training by which to pay it back. Those vocational certificate options are starting to look more attractive, and they exist in many more fields now that promise a good salary, especially in I.T./computer work and medical technology. Going to college now should not be simply an assumption, “because everybody does it,” but a choice made for carefully thought-out, compelling reasons.

students having a practical course


Why go and what to study. Certain fields, like engineering, law school, and medical school do require college and even graduate school, of course, and God may be calling you in that direction. However, it has always felt a little risky to major in the liberal arts or the fine arts. Nonetheless, that has worked out just fine for many students, too. A strong background in the canon of great literature, the arts, and foreign languages could help to form a young person into an educated, cultured, well-spoken person, which was worth the cost of tuition. Such graduates might be a great asset to a business, or even pick up a masters of business administration; or they may go to law school or medical school or seminary.

Where to go. A liberal arts path to success could still be worthwhile and still hold true, but nowadays it depends very much on where you go to college. This is because It can no longer be assumed that the canon of great literature and the arts is still being taught at many top schools. Some of my own students tell me that they are not, by any means, getting that kind education in some of their other classes, which have been commandeered by the rigid ideology of identity politics. To cite one recent magazine article by a music professor, who shall remain nameless:

“Here is the false belief that greatness is a quality inherent in a piece of music, rather than a culturally conditioned designation given by someone else…. Every year, social media platforms explode with disappointment as one orchestra after another tries to sell a season riddled with music by dead white men.”

This sort of quote could have come from many professors in many fields at practically every major university. The phrase “social media platforms explode” catches my attention. I guess it very much depends on which tiny social media subcultures you are choosing to read. They explode more like a cap gun or a Christmas cracker, I’d say. “Exploding” implies that many people feel this way, but my experience with symphony audiences is quite the opposite. What I see exploding is a desire to hear more, not less, of the great repertoire, because it is indeed inherently beautiful, not because it was written by a member of any particular race or gender. It takes a great deal of insulting presumption and judgmental elitism to imply that so many people want to hear great music because of the composer’s race. Another phrase that catches my eye is that the orchestras’ seasons are “riddled” with music by “dead white men,” which would seem to allude to a corpse being riddled with bullets, that is, the lethal or somehow toxic musical bullets of dead white men. I am not sure why being dead is so bad. I think it may be a historical chauvinism that assumes only the living of this generation are truly enlightened. So being both dead and male is a double whammy. Parents, those who make such out-of-touch, ivory-tower pronouncements eagerly await the chance, themselves, to riddle and explode your student’s young mind!

a view of a church


So, if you are considering studying the liberal arts at a certain college, I would urge you to pay it a visit and sit in on a few of their classes, and ask the professors for a copy of the syllabus you will have to follow, should you go there. It will often list the works of literature or art to be studied in that course, which can be very revealing. Go home and research what those works and authors are about. Look for a clear statement from the school of their commitment to the traditional canon of great works and to a Christian worldview, but make sure this commitment is actually required of all the professors, too, and is not only a case of the administration using it as a recruiting tool, especially at supposedly Catholic universities.

students watching a class


I have listed above one more question, which is “when”. My experience as a professor is that some students are not yet ready to get the most they can out of college, right out of high school. Many would benefit from at least one year of working “in the real world” before going to college. Many colleges will accept you with a “deferment” to begin a year later. On that note, assuming you do find a wonderful college to attend, let me give you five pieces of advice:

1. Go with the expectation that grading is often going to be subjective and not “fair”. Let it go. You can fight over grades with the professor and then wind up with a poor letter of recommendation, which will do you much more harm than a B on your transcript. Unless you are going to medical school or law school, letters of recommendation are likely to be taken much more seriously by future employers and graduate schools than your final GPA. Many people would rather hire a B student who is said to be cooperative and nice to work with than an A student who is said to be unteachable and entitled.

2. Do not speak to the professor as an equal. This mentality has emerged during the last several years; I don’t know why. Speak to your professor with deference and respect as someone in a higher position who has more decades of experience in their field than you. When you write an e-mail to professor Jones, don’t begin it with “Hi” but with “Dear Professor Jones”. If the professor’s door is propped open for office hours, don’t just walk in. Knock and wait to be invited in.

3. Do not get your feelings hurt if the professor calls on you personally, and you feel embarrassed because you don’t know the answer. That is not “insensitivity” or “shaming”. It’s called good teaching.

4. Don’t expect to be spoon-fed the material that will be on an upcoming test, or even told what the format will be. Your job is to study everything and be ready for any kind of question about it. And yes, it is fair.

5. You are not entitled to an A, even if you feel like you deserved one. The professor does not grade on how you feel. If you get an 89% (still a good grade), it is not because the professor “took off” eleven points. Rather, starting with zero, the professor added up the correct answers, and they totaled 89 points that you earned. Each assignment and test returned to you will have a grade on it. There is a grading scale on the syllabus, with the weight of each component. You can use this to keep track of how you are doing, yourself. Don’t ask the professor to figure that out for you in the middle of the course by asking “How am I doing?”

a scientist building something


In summary, there are many wonderful experiences and life-long friendships to be made during the young-adult “college years”, whether they are spent at a major university, smaller four-year college, or two-year technical school, and God can call students to any of the above. Especially for technical four-year degrees in engineering, math, business, and science, it may be possible, with careful selection of electives, to avoid altogether or take very few of the courses that have an agenda to destroy a Christian worldview. Also, some of the most devout extra-curricular student faith groups can be found at the “worst” secular universities and be a kind of life saver (or eternal life saver). However, my point in this article is simply that it may be impossible nowadays for committed Christians just to sign up and trustingly flow along with conventional models of higher education that we all once took for granted. We must proactively investigate what is really being taught and how it will equip us to serve God in the world with excellence of knowledge and skill, while preserving the precious faith that parents have, for so many years before college, worked to inculcate into their students.

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