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Thursday, January 19, 2017

Essay: Are colleges teaching students how to think? |

"A friend once told me that he thought the principal value of his college education was to find a job that would provide him with enough money to pay for his kids to have one."  commentary by David Woods. 

A Penn State University student walks across campus in front of Old Main on main campus in State College, Pennsylvania. 
AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, file

Today, roughly 40 percent of Americans of college age actually do go to college at an average annual cost of $31,000 for a private university and $9,000 for a public. This has placed such an education beyond the reach of many who might otherwise be eligible for it.  

As Bernie Sanders puts it, "the cost of college education today is so high that many young people are giving up their dream of going to college, while many others are graduating deeply in debt."

Is all this worth the effort or the cost? Many would say that becoming a plumber would offer an equal fiscal reward over the span of a working life. But then one has to ask: Is the purpose of a college education to enhance one's earning prospects? Or is it more than that?

In the 1950s and '60s about three Britons in 100 actually attended a university. In fact, in those days there were only a dozen or so universities in the whole of the UK — and tuition was free. Today there are more than 100, and the percentage of the population in college is now roughly the same as that in the United States.

Much depends of course on what constitutes an education. Columbia College in Chicago offers a course in zombies in popular media; another, at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, offers one titled "What if Harry Potter is real?" and the athletics department of Reed College in Portland, Oregon, offers a course in which students "learn to juggle, starting with three balls."

I was spared much of that McSchooling at my Catholic boarding school in the UK. To begin with, there was no homework — because nobody went home; instead, after finishing one's assignments, one was held hostage in a large room whose walls contained the literary classics: Dickens, Scott, Shakespeare, etc. We had no choice but to read before we were set free, a habit that continues to give me great joy.

Moreover, this school engendered my first efforts at critical thinking — or, at least, critical questioning. The place was run by an order of priests of whom I would often ask what was their knowledge of such non-Catholic religions as Judaism, Hinduism, and even Presbyterianism. But I looked in vain for an answer. At university I joined the debating society, which was also a good way of putting a certain gloss on one's skepticism — critical thinking, possibly of the smart-aleck type.

That university, situated in Ireland, afforded the curious ample opportunity for critical appraisal of the rival claims of the Catholic South and the Protestant North.