No shortcuts to a true education

Published December 8 2012

The two biggest challenges to the traditional form of higher education are, "Why does it cost so much?" and, "Why assume all that debt and have no job at the end?" • The answers, of course, depend partly on the particular student but also on the kind of college education he or she receives. The notion that online courses constitute a real alternative to a traditional college education (most recently argued in this paper by former Gov. Jeb Bush and an online company CEO, but also promulgated by the Obama administration) is about as close to nonsense as you can get. Online learning is fine for some limited purposes, but not for the primary beneficiaries of undergraduate education — 18- to 22-year-olds.

What so many experts and cost-analysts and commentators forget is that college is an experience, not just a degree, an experience that moves young men and women along the path from adolescence to adulthood.

A first-rate college experience involves meeting new people, new ideas, new viewpoints, new places, new forms of living, new conceptions of life and love and work and play. College should be a crash course in encountering what the world has to offer and trying out ways to respond to it, under reasonably protected circumstances.

Everything that happens during the undergraduate years — in class, in dorms, at cafeterias, social events, guest lectures, athletic fields, bookstores, commencement addresses — everything should be aimed at enriching the educational experience, at deepening the engagement of the student with the life of the mind and the body and the spirit.

Such a conception of undergraduate education is increasingly at odds with what now passes for "college" at so many places: large, impersonal classes; teachers who are part time or graduate students; advisers who are not faculty; courses taken online rather than in person; athletic teams populated by pre-professionals whom students do not see in their classes; and athletic contests at which visitors outnumber students. The very idea that "college" is simply about preparation for "the workforce," or that a college degree is just a totaling up of credits is incompatible with the vision and the work at colleges worthy of the name.

It is easy enough to argue that because states lack adequate financial resources to support higher education, it is okay to substitute a new, cheap form of amassing credits. It is much harder to argue that such courses add up to what a college education ought to be.

There are two primary issues here: One is that online courses are, as University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson says, "a one-size-fits-all endeavor." Each student gets the same product, at the same pace, not as an individual but as "whoever," regardless of his or her individual responses, understanding, or capacity.

Good courses and good teaching do not operate this way: A good college class is a conversation, a dialogue — as Socrates taught us more than two millennia ago — between a teacher-guide and a student, who is learning not only the substance of the course but how to think and how to learn.

The second issue is that courses alone, online or not, do not a "college education" make. College is the way many young people "grow up" in our culture, and the best form of higher education provides thoughtful and manifold opportunities for the outside-class experience also to be a dialogue — between students and faculty, staff and other students. The most effective colleges use the outside-class experience to help students learn the great lessons of civic life and prepare them for lives of service and responsibility to their adult communities, not just for their first job.

This is expensive, time-consuming, arduous work for both teacher and student — and has always been so. But there are simply no good shortcuts to developing an educated person, the dreams and claims of those infatuated with the latest educational fad notwithstanding,

Donald R. Eastman III is president of Eckerd College, a private liberal arts college in St. Petersburg. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.