What’s the Point of Undergraduate Education?

by Mark Wilson

On the nature of the undergraduate major. I agree with the author that there’s a problem in undergraduate education. The author’s suggestion, however, seems to be to gear the undergraduate institution toward B-school by making everything “practical,” which is a not-so-thinly-veiled way of saying, “Here’s how you’re going to get a job with this.”

Question one in undergraduate education is: what the heck are we doing here? Is the undergraduate major supposed to hearken back to the days of the Academy, when students at Oxford would learn for learning’s sake? Given the high price of a undergraduate liberal arts degree, that romantic notion seems anachronistic. With the Internet being what it is, you could get a liberal arts education (not a degree) for free.

Which then brings we liberal arts students to a disheartening conclusion: the undergraduate major is B-school on training wheels. Should it be nothing more than a glorified vocational school? And if so, why does it exist in its present form?

Separate from the question of what the curriculum should do is the question of the culture of the modern undergraduate institution. For most students, I think, it’s the first time that they’ve lived on their own for extensive lengths of time. But they still come home every summer, so it’s a lot like boarding school. Is “College!” also supposed to be a four-year-long Quickening?

Cost is really at the heart of these questions. There was a time when students could afford to learn for learning’s sake. But with in-state tuition approaching $20,000 a year, students either (1) shouldn’t have to take out a mortgage to philosophize, or (2) shouldn’t be taking out a mortgage merely to philosophize. And all because the bachelor’s degree is, as one of my friends put it, a license to go look for a job.