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This essay is a winner of JetWriters Essay Writing Contest 2015

Author: Asher S. de Sadeleer


Study and practice, learning and living: how can they be reconciled? The question of whether school prepares the youth for the demands of “real life” is arguably as old as education itself. As it comes up in many guises across times, it has the benefit of regularly shaking up both the aims and methods of institutionalized learning. Presently, questioning higher education in a broad sense seems tantamount to questioning the prominent American model1: massive, research-oriented colleges of mixed private and public funding, whose diplomas represent four years of effort as well as a major financial investment. Does this model adequately gear students up for the working world?

Of late, colleges have been under fire. One issue is “getting value for money”2. Over the past decades, studies have shown U.S. graduates’ learning performances to be dropping, while the costs of education are rising. Nonetheless, a degree is still “a passport to prosperity”3. The job market is rife with them, making for competition; a hi-tech world craves skilled experts. Accordingly, the question may not be whether colleges facilitate access to careers – they do. But do they lead to successful careers? Are they the very best form of preparation?

Worryingly, a case can be made that they aren’t. Even as they deem pricey colleges sound investments, critics of higher education often contrast the “ivory tower” of academia with the unforgiving arena of the “real world”.4 To understand the issue, three levels will be examined: colleges’ systemic workings, the actual skills they teach, and the ideal of what they provide.

First of all, a diploma definitely improves one’s professional prospects. If delivered by a top-ranked university, it makes one stand out among competitors. However, “the market […] does not work well.”5 As it happens, under the American model, it is colleges’ research output that attracts government funding. In contrast to the more egalitarian European model, where state subsidies level the field between institutions, “price becomes a proxy for quality”6. As a result, metrics have come to chiefly value universities’ research record: indeed, there seems to be “no good internationally comparable measures of teaching quality.”7

In other words, colleges are ranked not on the basis of student experience, but according to the academic staff’s scientific performance. On a systemic level, this situation may bolster the argument that colleges are indeed ivory towers. Good researchers do not per se make good teachers or trainers. Worse, there would hardly be any incentive for them to be so. Actually, “students could be paying […] merely to go through a very elaborate sorting mechanism”8: the top-notch universities’ initial selection procedure may readily signal professional quality to future employers, even in the case that the teaching itself does not foster it properly.

At the broadest structural level, there would thus be room for improving the model. But is this to say that practically, colleges are indeed failing? To answer this question, one should assess curriculums over various fields and evaluate whether or not they fulfill their mission – the shaping of professionals. Arguably though, when they are well-designed and well-taught, college courses make for excellent learning. As evidenced by the positive reviews garnered by a number of MOOCs across disciplines,9 they are able to transmit state-of-the-art knowledge in an engaging and active way. All the same, is this enough to kick-start a career?

Again, the ivory tower argument comes into play. Knowledge, critical thought and essay- writing abilities would be insufficient in “a dog-eat-dog world […] of competition and one- upsmanship.”10 School rules can appear at odds with workplace rules, to the extent that some view colleges as protective bubbles11 – perhaps even undermining career preparation. Certain “skills” must therefore be acquired the hard way: coping with managerial frustrations, shifting workloads and ambiguity, financial liability, office rivalry, etc. By contrast, colleges would be unreal zones of limited accountability, where stakes are low and humane interests prevail.

However, such a view is all too simplistic. Besides providing students with know-how in their discipline, colleges are able to offer a holistic training in autonomy and commitment. Coursework does involve hands-on tasks and deadlines. In the lecture hall as in the workplace, achieving optimum results takes discipline, adaptability and success strategies. Furthermore, colleges include traineeship opportunities and enriching extracurricular activities, e.g. cultural societies or campus political life; electives may cover training in professional presentation or financial management. Finally, alumni networks may prove valuable assets to one’s career.

All these factors challenge the belief that by design, colleges would shelter students from the ominous professional world. At the deepest level, one may therefore probe the ideal of college experience. In itself, this is a suspicious word – it suggests detachment from reality. But if John Dewey was right that “education is life itself”, then colleges are more than “places of preparation”12: they should be assessed as settings for active enactment of responsibility.

This vision of colleges moves beyond their assets and flaws as professional springboards. The terms “successful career” may be reinterpreted to refer to a person’s life road, that is, the OED’s definition of a career as a “course or progress through life”. This includes, as James Farrell puts it, not mere submission to market demands, but “whole dimensions of the human person – aesthetic, spiritual, ethical, […] political.”13 In all these respects, campuses arguably score high. Indeed, “the practices of the ivory tower can offer important alternatives”14.

In an inspiring academic context, college students are led to expand their awareness of others and their environment, to exercise new skills, to awaken to moral choices. They are compelled to set their life course on the right track – whichever that might be. As a result, the line between college and career, learning and living is blurred. By institutionalizing reflection, by encouraging study of what should be rather than conformity to what is, colleges provide a consummate experience: not a final prep, but the first miles of a successful career.

In the end, what can be concluded? Systemically, colleges appear as an effective model, one that is being emulated worldwide. Unfortunately, global rankings do not value learning experiences directly enough, thus neglecting their very aim. This distortion can be corrected by tweaking the metrics to place teaching quality first. Practically, after all, colleges remain unmatched in their potential to educate through a variety of methods, platforms and prospects: they promote intellectual and practical self-reliance, ambition and inquiring outlooks on life.

At the core level, then, the college experience is meant to help students accomplish their life career – in the fullest, most humane sense of the term. There is no meaningful dichotomy between the academia and the outside world. All in all, college is certainly not the only path towards achievement; but if it is chosen, more than a preparation, it is a major part of the road. As soon as it is prized and approached as such, it may truly become a passport for success.



1 Cf. The Economist, “The world is going to university”, 28 March 2015.
2 The Economist, “Universities: Excellence v equity”, 28 March 2015.
3 Ibid.
4 Cf. James FARRELL, “‘The Real World’”, Milkweed Editions, 2010. Mr. Farrell’s article challenges this notion. 5 The Economist, “The world is going to university”, id.
6 Ibid.
7 The Economist, “Rankings: Top of the class”, 28 March 2015.
8 The Economist, “The world is going to university”, id.
9 Cf. e.g. CourseTalk,
10 James FARRELL, “‘The Real World’”, id.
11 Cf. ibid.
12 Cf. ibid.
13 James FARRELL, “Education and Practicality”, Milkweed Editions, 23 October 2011. 14 James FARRELL, “‘The Real World’”, id.

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