The American Dream: On College Admission, Circular Reasoning, and Handfuls of Gravel

Reprinted from my column for the Circe Institute.

Peter: I’m studying for my exam tomorrow.

Socrates: And why are you doing that?

Peter: I’m studying to pass my course, of course.

Socrates: And why do you want to do that?

Peter: To get a degree, of course.

Socrates: You mean all the time and effort and money you put into your education here at Desperate State is to purchase that little piece of paper?

Peter: That’s the way it is.

The above conversation, between Peter Pragma and a reincarnated Socrates, continues in Dr. Peter Kreeft’s book The Best Things in Life.  Peter Pragma explains that a “college degree is the entrance ticket to a good job,” which means a solid income, which enables you to send your children to college to get a degree and a good job.  Socrates replies, “Have you ever heard the expression ‘arguing in a circle’?”  Ah, the beautiful, vicious cycle of the American dream!

The “non-profit” College Board makes tens of millions of dollars every year selling that dream.  Preying upon the fears of parents and high school students alike, they further our nation’s obsession with reducing education to a series of numbers. The College Board has given us the SAT, the PSAT, and AP courses, apparently in the belief that all student achievement can be summarized in Scantron bubbles and grammar-level memorization of facts.

Tragically, most buy it.  Blinded by fear over their child’s future, parents make test scores and college resources their main concern – “Anything to give him a leg up going into college!”  Not surprisingly, students become overly stressed about college admissions as well.  In turn, even teachers and headmasters can fall to the pressure of such parental demands and “marketing the school”. Rather than being driven by sound, classical educational philosophy and trying to inform students and parents, they dive back into the vicious “college-degree-career-money” cycle.

Now, I hasten to say that I am not proposing a false dilemma here.  College, work, and money are all important in their place.  But, we seem to be far too concerned with where we send our children to college and not nearly concerned enough with who we are sending to college. What kind of young men and women are they?

Yet, even that question can be dangerous because of our tendency to view students as products.  Ah, you mean, “What do we want our graduates to look like?  What is our finished product?”  No!  Schools are not assembly lines. Education is about the nurturing of a child’s soul on those things that are good, true, and beautiful so that they will grow to love wisdom and virtue.  How do you translate that into an SAT score or a college acceptance letter?  You don’t.

C.S. Lewis said, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.”  By aiming at test scores and college entrance, we give our children handfuls of gravel and call it bread. We give them nothing that is truly good.  But, by aiming at the development of wisdom and virtue, we can attain both.

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