Opinion | Should More Students Skip College?

To the Editor:

Re “College Has Become the Default. Let’s Rethink That,” by John McWhorter (Opinion, April 7):

I was puzzled and disappointed by Dr. McWhorter’s essay. Puzzled by his assumption that so many students are biding their time until they get that “piece of paper” so they can get a job. Disappointed by his cheerleading for a less educated America.

Of course college isn’t for everyone, and not everyone needs to go to college to be educated. He shared about his college experience. I’d like to share mine.

I went to Brooklyn College. I majored in media, having found the mini-series “Roots” to be a life-changing experience. I took a psychology class and fell in love with the subject, so I majored in that too. I wondered about health science and took a course in that, and I learned why eating healthily matters. I learned in biology how to understand how my body works, making me an educated patient. And perhaps as important as all those things, I took history and political science and learned what it means to be an informed citizen.

I do not understand Dr. McWhorter’s attitude toward higher education. Learning to think critically about health and politics and having empathy for other cultures are important for everyone. College may not be the best way to do it for everyone. But his downgrading of the value of a four-year degree misses the whole point of college. It is to become an educated adult and citizen.

Elaine Edelman
East Brunswick, N.J.

To the Editor:

As the executive director of a foundation that supports programs designed to strengthen early childhood education, I have viewed with dismay kindergarten classrooms festooned with pennants from Ivy League colleges. I agree with John McWhorter’s premise: A college education isn’t required to prepare someone for a successful career!

Years ago what was called “vocational education” was valued and available to high school students, but it seems to have fallen out of fashion in favor of four more years of what may be unfocused study. Technical education should be available to students who become plumbers, electricians, computer technicians and other tradespeople who are essential contributors to our everyday lives, but who may not need to read the Great Books to have successful careers.

Deborah Breznay
New York

To the Editor:

The headline of John McWhorter’s column buries the lead. The main takeaway should emphasize a proposal by Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, that kids spend their last two years in high school on a track termed “early college.” Assuming that this means a richer and more intellectually demanding curriculum than usual, I’m all for it. Early college would give these students a better sense of what a college education is, and, maybe, should be. The decision to continue would be better informed.

Dissing college has been fashionable for some time now, particularly among those who choose to measure its value through a cost-benefit analysis. A college education can lead to a job, but it is not the same as a trade school certificate. Those who choose a college education should do so for the education, mostly to explore subjects previously not available in high school. If more of these subjects can be offered in the 11th and 12th grades, that’s wonderful.

Concentrate on revamping the high school curriculum for today’s students, and the issue of college as the default will take care of itself.

Robert S. Cole Jr.

To the Editor:

John McWhorter is correct. Many students arriving on campus do not know what college has to offer them or even why they are there except that it’s “the next step.” And too many never take advantage of the opportunities available on campus. But that doesn’t mean students shouldn’t bother attending college and instead rely on distance (or other alternative forms of) learning.

Rather, pre-college education should prepare students for the opportunities afforded by further quality education; college brochures and tours should foreground the means and the rewards of learning to think deeply about many topics; and, most important, faculty and staff on campus should work to ensure that every enrolled student can explore new areas and graduate better equipped to deal with work, civic and personal responsibilities.

Howard Gardner
Cambridge, Mass.
The writer is a professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and co-author of “The Real World of College.”

To the Editor:

Colleges and universities have contributed significantly to the decline of the American system of education. Most institutions of higher education have become expensive and extremely political. Professors seem too often to be preoccupied with doctrine rather than teaching skills meant to prepare students for professions. As a result, students and their families too often incur high debt and pay outrageous amounts of money for credits and certificates that could be achieved with less money and time involvement.

When I attended college and graduate school, what John McWhorter refers to as “the ordinary trajectory” after high school served for me more as a trajectory of escape from poverty. I came from a family that had little education, and college and graduate degrees freed me from poverty and afforded a very rewarding life. The path I took seems less rewarding today.

Franklin T. Burroughs
Walnut Creek, Calif.

To the Editor:

John McWhorter is absolutely right: Not everyone needs to go to college, but everyone does have to become educated and prepared to be a responsible citizen. Can that be done without going to college?

Dr. McWhorter suggests, together with Leon Botstein, that an appropriate basic education could be achieved by the end of 10th grade. Possibly. But — been there, done that. Robert Maynard Hutchins, then president of the University of Chicago, was of that opinion back in the 1940s, and indeed the University of Chicago Laboratory School discharged me with my high school diploma at the end of 10th grade in 1947.

Well, probably I was ready for college intellectually, possibly emotionally, but certainly not physically. I took two more years at preparatory school before I went to college, during which time I grew about four inches and without which I would never have succeeded in becoming a three-time all-American in soccer.

OK, so that is not a measure of success in life. But to implement a shorter curriculum as a useful part of a comprehensive restructuring of our educational system there would have to be more universal acceptance of the idea and a common appreciation of the goals of education. Mr. Hutchins’s idea was ahead of its time and did not last; the University of Chicago’s High School is now back to a traditional 12-grade curriculum.

Robert H. Palmer
New York

To the Editor:

John McWhorter, arguing against higher education, says that many young people might be “better off just getting out there and doing what they wanted to do, without four years of expensive preparation only diagonally related to what they were going to spend their lives doing.”

Well, let’s see. In college what I wanted to do was to be an actress. I ended up, diagonally, spending my life writing and teaching writing. Meanwhile, I had all kinds of college experiences “only diagonally” connected to preparing me for this life. I learned to speak pretty good French and minimal Spanish. I discovered Gawain and heroic couplets. I learned that I loved botany and anthropology. My mind exploded with existentialism and dramatic irony.

Meanwhile, I had my first beer and my first heartbreak, experienced a deep friendship and a resistance to certain concepts of my childhood, and interrogated my relationship to God.

Gee whiz, if only I’d had the benefit of Dr. McWhorter’s wisdom I wouldn’t have wasted my time on a “liberal education.”

Janet Burroway

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