Arrive and Thrive: What is the Purpose of College?

For my second class, I wanted to get students to reflect on the “why” of their college experience. Not just why go to college, but why choose the very specific experience of a four-year liberal arts education at Johns Hopkins. When I asked them whether they viewed college as career preparation, an venue for self-discovery or an opportunity to engage in the “life of the mind” most chose career preparation. The emphasis on careers was even greater when I asked them what they believed their parents thought about the purpose of college. This is not surprising. Given the rising cost of college, the continued economic anxiety of today’s families following the Great Recession, and the steady drumbeat of news articles treating college as an investment, or worse, a commodity, it makes sense that so many first-year students would view college through the prism of the market place.

And yet at the same time, when you ask college students what they value, what they want out of life, what they consider important, rarely do they frame their answers to these questions in economic terms. They talk about giving back, about helping others, about family and friendship, about contributing to the common good, and about pursuing a life with purpose. While career certainly figures into the equation, what most students are striving for goes beyond just a job, or even a career (however noble). What they want, or at least say they want, is a meaningful life. What role then can college play in helping students define and build a meaningful life?

To help them begin to answer that question, I wanted them to at least entertain the idea that the purpose of college is connected back to the idea of a liberal arts education. While there are a lot of books and articles out there on this topic, I had them do two readings. One was the introduction to a wonderful new book by Johann Neem, What’s the Point of College?: Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform, which we used this past summer for our Life Design Summer Institute. The second was Danielle Allen’s “Aims of Education” convocation address to the University of Chicago Class of 2005, delivered on September 20, 2001.

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