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Dim College Years

by James Lileks

Rumor said the prof flipped out: pulled a pistol in front of the class, declared he was the son of Otto von Bismarck, and started yelling in German. No doubt some still took notes. This could be on the test. The incident supposedly happened a few years before I took his class, and seemed specious. Granted, lecturing seemed to be a strain; by the end of the class he looked like a hot, wet beet. But he was certainly one of the finest teachers I ever had. I wish I remembered 5 percent of what he taught us.

The class was 19th-century diplomatic history, and while I recall the pillars and timbers, the details are gone, and the characters are standing around looking bored and uncomfortable, waiting for someone to feed them their lines. The entire senior year is like an eye chart seen through pebbled glass. The Russian-lit class? A memory of aristocrats sitting around on an estate in late summer looking fretful and enervated. Renaissance art history: I seem to recall a painting of pastel-colored saints, floating up like balloons escaped from a children’s party. You despair when you recall how much you’ve forgotten.

Not just college: You think back to a History Channel documentary a few years back, which gave you a sudden command of the history of the Hittite incursions on Egypt. That’s gone, too. But at least you know where the Hittites were, and when. At least you can tell Baroque from Renaissance, Turgenev from Gogol. They’re not useful skills, but they add depth and pleasure to life. Conclusion: For some people in some instances, college is good.

Pack that seed in the nightsoil of progressive fertilization, and you have: College is good for everyone and no one should have to pay for it. Rick Santorum rolled a stink bomb into the faculty lounge the other day when he suggested college is overrated. It destroys faith, he said, and the president’s call for everyone to go to college, preferably twice, was “elitist.” He’s certainly right on the latter point. The president is a product of academia — which may explain his enthusiasm for wind energy — and hence he believes in the magic power of Credentials. If you’ve a Master’s, then a Master you must be.

As for upending the Etch A Sketch of a freshman’s belief system, parents are right to worry. Oh, the school looks like a place of gravity and tradition, what with the ivy and colonnades and Latin engraved over the doors, but parents fear that after they leave, it’s a Mazola midnight orgy on the commons with a huge picture of Che projected Bat-signal-style in the sky. To which the educators will scoff and say that’s troglodyte paranoia, and besides, Mazola might use genetically modified corn to make its oil, and that’s not sustainable.

There’s no plan, no plot. The faculty doesn’t meet to divvy up brainwashing duty: “All right, Blythe-Smidgens, you use lit courses to elevate the proletariat to its rightful role as the vanguard of revolutionary change, and Parsons here will use biology to strip the fetus of its personhood.” Like the liberalism of newsrooms, it’s just in the air. Problem is, you have to breathe. If the teacher asks the student to describe Gatsby in terms of the Occupy movement, the kid won’t say, “That’s a specious application of faddish politics to great literature,” because a) he’ll flunk or b) those are hard words! We never had to use them in high school!  The latter point is often used as a reason for sending everyone into the dark satanic diploma mills — college does the job that secondary schools used to. The high-school history final used to be “Explain the rise and fall of the Greek city-state, and Italy’s achievement of unitary peninsular political cohesion.” Now it’s “Which president would you like to hang out with?”

No, we can’t expect kids to come out of high school and plunge into the work force. They need to be slowly digested by a large, respected institution, which excretes them years later holding a piece of paper that will forever change their life — by which I mean the statement from the bank detailing their loan-payback schedule. In exchange they will have one of two things: a specific set of skills that can be applied to something useful and remunerative, like opening up human bodies and fixing things, or a vague array of artistic aptitudes that assures an employer the graduate can write a coherent sentence and knows which side the Nazis were on in WWII. That’s all a liberal-arts degree means these days: I’m not hopelessly stupid.

The college model is broken. It costs too much. It promises too much. It is content to let people graduate with a degree in grievance studies and a minor in ferret husbandry. We should replace the traditional model with four alternatives: trade school, with cultural electives; fun school, where you can pursue things that cannot possibly lead to a job, but you’re required to learn how to fix a leaky toilet; hard school, where they throw everything at you; and ultra-hard school, where you work on cadavers or law or chemicals or the means to build things that don’t fall down.

It would be unfair to make the interest rate for fun school higher, but it would be wise. This might mean a decrease in the number of people who major in puppetry. It’s one thing to wish I recalled everything that brilliant professor taught me about Metternich. It’s another to think back, consider the cost of tuition, and realize you’ve forgotten which one’s Punch and which one’s Judy.

Mr. Lileks blogs at

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