College, I have been told, will have been the best four years of my life. While the truth of this statement ultimately remains to be proven, I can say that the last four years seem to have left many of my peers unfulfilled at the end of their experience. In its rush to provide students with skills that can be put to immediate use after graduation, higher education has failed its students by focusing on vocational training in lieu of thoughtful reflection on themselves and the world around them.
The university is traditionally a place of self-discovery. Students are free to experiment with new ideas about politics, religion, their sexuality, and yes, even drugs. I have heard it said that it takes more courage for a philosopher to stare into the depths of his own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on the front lines of a battlefield. But this longing for self-discovery, already an enormously difficult task in itself, is further complicated by the prejudices of American society.
Questions about the state of one's soul or the status of universal morality are considered silly questions not worth serious study. They take away precious time from the pursuit of a career. Such lofty questions have been made the sole responsibility of the church, though the pastor demands far less of his flock than Socrates does of the students who listen seriously to his teachings. And there's no reason to believe that our current church leaders know more about living a good life than the ancient Greeks did 2,500 years ago.
Students coming out of high school have been discouraged from tackling the difficult questions left to philosophy, even though they are universal questions that affect all of humanity. Even those who wish to pursue these questions will find themselves ill prepared by their education thus far, and discouraged even further by the prospect of finding employment once they finish their degree. A college that seeks to tackle the big questions appears to be doing so at the expense of practical experience. Any system of education that requires its students to take up a more philosophical course of study will understandably appear rigid and even irrational.
The bigger problem is the climate of anti-intellectualism that seems to dominate most aspects of life in America. Intellectuals in the United States occupy a precarious position, relegated to the confines of the university. No one wants to be reminded that someone else is smarter than they are. Acknowledging aristocratic values would undermine our egalitarian beliefs. This was partially the basis of the American Revolution.
But this attitude is problematic on a larger scale as we become more ignorant of our own history. John Locke's revolutionary political thought is the core of our Bill of Rights, but it is also a reply to the Greek tradition that came before him. Yet neither one of these political systems are discussed today, at a time when they are the most relevant. The idea of natural rights is crucial to understanding and resolving contemporary problems such as gay marriage, the war on terrorism or affirmative action.
Most colleges have given in, and technical knowledge is now passed off as wisdom. But I have noticed that students who come out of narrowly focused programs are dissatisfied both with their college experience and the kinds of jobs that are offered to them.
At the same time, the students who come out of liberal arts programs (like the one I did) that do not go on to graduate programs are increasingly restless and yet willing to settle for jobs in the hotel and food service industry. Sadly, I think many of them are tired of trying to justify the value of their education.
Former Independent intern Eddie Kovsky is a recent graduate of St. John's College in Santa Fe.