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Why It’s Time to Re-think College: An Interview with David Hicks

As the school year comes to a close many of us are faced with sending high school graduates off into the wide world. The young people in whom we have invested so much time and energy will soon be on their own, more or less. Most of these young people will head off to college. Still others are in the midst of college searches and SATs and planning for the future. In both cases, the process can seem never-ending, like filling out paperwork for an insurance company or paying taxes. And, in the end, who knows if the right decision was made. Did these students choose the right college? Is there any way to know? Is college even a good idea in 2016?

These are some of the questions I recently posed to our friend David Hicks, author of the seminal book Norms and Nobility. His decades of work in schools and educational institutions all over the world have led him to be skeptical of modern American higher education and he explains why (among other things) in the following conversation.

David Kern: I have heard you say before that parents should ask the same questions of a university that they would if they were going to a boarding school. Can you explain this a bit? What would those questions be?

David Hicks: When I said that, I’m sure I was thinking about the profound influence the culture of the school has upon the formation of a young man or woman. That, in my opinion, is the single most important factor in the decision of where to go to school or college, if one has a choice. I say this, reminding my reader that in ancient Greek, the word for culture and education was one and the same: paideia.

So, what questions might get at the nature of the culture? How do the students at this school or college typically use their leisure time (An Aristotelean question)? What is the life of the school or college like on the weekends, particularly Saturday nights? How many of the students typically attend church on Sunday or synagogue on Shabbat? What opportunities does a student have to engage with the community outside the school or college? How much and what type of interaction do students have with their professors outside of class? That sort of thing.

Can you unpack that a bit more (so to speak)? That is, can you explain why those sorts of things are more indicative of the quality of a college than academic concerns?

I’m glad you followed up with that question. Not only because my failure to mention “academics” will probably surprise many of those reading this interview, but because it gives me an opportunity to share my thoughts on why I wouldn’t put much stock in the academic criteria generally trotted out by the leading selectivity indices. What are those criteria? Among the students: average SAT and ACT scores, the number of high school valedictorians, the percentage of applicants accepted; among the faculty, the number of Nobel winners and other well-published and publicized professors and the breadth of course offerings.

Classically speaking, the Academy is meant and intended to reflect, follow and preserve the culture. It conserves value and passes it along, generation after generation. The modern American university seems to be all about critiquing the culture and re-inventing it.​

My negative reasons for discounting academics are these: 1. Teaching is simply not a priority at most universities for their most renowned professors—research and publication are the priorities—junior instructors and graduate students (some of whom are very good) do most of the teaching; 2. Having worked most my life with very high IQ and effective test-taking students, I worry about the entitlement and often unconscious arrogance that attend these achievements and characteristics, both mitigating against a true hunger and Socratic humility necessary for learning; 3. When you’re looking at a school or college from outside, it’s virtually impossible to see what is going on in the classrooms; and, finally, 4. My experience suggests that the thicker the course catalog, the thinner the individual student transcript. Gresham’s Law comes into play here with easy, “relevant,” trendy courses driving out more rigorous and essential ones. Individual student transcripts reflect this when they show little breadth, or fill up with courses that all share the same tendency, or that lack philosophical rigor and historical perspective.

But my positive reason weighs even more heavily with me. Let me preface this with a question. How do we evaluate the quality of a person’s education? To this question, I like Aristotle’s answer. The test is how that person chooses to spend his or her leisure time. That’s why I answered your first question the way I did.

That certainly makes sense. But can you be a bit more specific regarding specifics of how to assess the kind of answers the colleges are giving? It’s one thing to know what questions to ask of a prospective college, but it’s another thing altogether to know how to assess their answers. Certainly some colleges will exuberantly promote themselves as party schools, so to speak, while other schools will over-emphasize their academic reputation. Are there clues that can help us wade through all the inane marketing copy and slogans?

My questions presuppose a visit to the campus. I’m not aware of any college that answers my questions in its “marketing copy and slogans.” Given the toxic environment on so many of today’s campuses, why would a parent send his son or her daughter off to a college for four years, spending tens of thousands of dollars, without first spending weekend time on the campus, talking with students and teachers, and asking my questions? We buy cars with more due diligence than this.

True. Although, sadly, I know of many students whose families have done just that. Yet, on the other hand, does a visit to a school really tell enough of the story? I don’t mean to be disagreeable. I think there’s a lot of wisdom in what you say. But can a campus visit, even a relatively long one that includes in depth conversations with school officials and students, reveal enough to make a truly educated decision when helping our children choose a college? It seems a terribly difficult decision and I’m sure when my kids are of college age, in fifteen years or so, I’ll be terrified throughout the process.

Not to duck your question, David, but at this point in our exchange perhaps it’s my duty to inject a note of realism. The American University is not the Garden of Eden and will be even less so in fifteen years when you send your young-uns into the wilderness. The American University is not a place, if it ever was, to “find yourself.” This may also be my cue to put in a plug for the so-called Gap Year. I think it’s a serious mistake and lost opportunity for any young person to proceed directly to the university from high school or before they are secure in their habits, character, and beliefs.

I remember during my graduate student years at Oxford how my teachers, called dons, lamented the end of the National Service requirement in the UK and spoke nostalgically of Oxford in the Fifties when more mature and disciplined students came up to the University after doing their military service. Presumably, most of these men had found themselves.

I don’t think that’s ducking the question at all. When I finally went to college I had essentially taken a year off, during which I lived with some older, more mature guys and worked in a little A&W restaurant (a bad experience in almost every way). That year helped me grow up and see more clearly what I wanted to study in college. Without that time I likely would have entered college without focus — and who knows what would have happened. Certainly some students are more prepared for the college experience than I was. But as parents and teachers how do we know when/if our kids are ready for it?

Well, were I given an opportunity to start over with my own children, I would start early building the expectation with them that they will be doing something other than college right after school, ideally something out-of-doors here in Montana, working on a farm or ranch or in the mountains building and repairing trails, or perhaps working with a mission in Mexico or overseas, or serving in the Navy, or engaged in one of the many Gap Year programs springing up all over. I wouldn’t even wait to wrestle with the “ready” question.

What about trade schools, such as, say, the Rocky Mountain School of Photography which is in Montana, or something along those lines? Here in NC we have many trade schools related to the automative industry due to the prevalence of auto racing. Do you see more value in them given the direction many of the more traditional institutions are headed?

“Trade schools” is an excellent idea, as well as apprenticeships, especially when you consider that the university has now moved very far away from the idea of a liberal arts education in the direction of preparation for the work force. This move probably contributed to the university’s disregard for its own culture since that is tied to the old idea of education as formation (morphosis) and personal cultivation.

So is there a way home for the American university system? Any hope?

I never want to say, there is no hope. As long as we can say, Christ is risen! there is hope. But the situation, as I see it, is this. Classically speaking, the Academy is meant and intended to reflect, follow and preserve the culture. It conserves value and passes it along, generation after generation.

The modern American university seems to be all about critiquing the culture and re-inventing it. In this enterprise it either ignores the past, revises it in light of present ideologies and desires, edits it by expurgating the bits not aligned with current thinking, or attacks it with clever condescension. As long as this situation persists, there is no hope, but as history has taught our ancestors time and again, it is a mistress that does not take kindly to being ignored or manipulated.

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