A friend called me to consult about a high school graduation gift for my daughter and said one her ideas was to give my girl rolls of quarters to use in the laundry machines in the dorm. We often joked about how we never did break the habit of hoarding quarters for laundry and still cashing them in at the supermarket every couple of years. Being a thorough person, she called my daughter’s college to find out if the machines still take quarters and discovered that students no longer have to pay to do laundry at school – it’s covered under the exorbitant tuition (they do offer to send it out for a fee – I wonder who does that?). My theory is that as soon as the college went from women only to co-ed in the late 80s they figured that if the machines were free the guys would be more likely to do laundry. But even as late as 2005 students were paying, so I have to wonder if it became a selling point with parents – “Look! If you go into debt up to your eyeballs your kid will still have clean clothes.” Or something like that.
But with the recent flap at the University of Virginia and others like it (they basically fired their President for not being prescient about the economic downturn and a patsy for big donors), I am beginning to wonder if the education we are about to pay for will become obsolete. College is important, yes, but has the one we have chosen to give our daughter the kind of education she needs? Any number of families we know have seen their freshmen turn on their heels and return home, saying the schools are not providing the kind of teaching they expected or want. Kids have always come back home, of course, for any number of good reasons – I took a year off myself to regroup emotionally and financially – but part of it seems to be that students are not satisfied to learn in a lecture hall what they can easily look up on the Internet. Somebody, somewhere is probably designing a degree program based entirely on TED talks. MIT and Harvard have seriously upped the ante on online learning – for free, for now – and now all universities are scrambling to figure out what that means, whether they should copy the Edex, as it is called, model and whether they can afford to. But I don’t want my child to learn online or at home. She learned how to use the internet for research in high school, and lucky for us her the actual teaching environment at her high school is low tech – it’s an essential school, which means it values dialogue and critical thinking more than anything else. If she finds herself in a lecture hall she may roll her eyes but she’ll stick around and listen.
What’s even more worrisome is the message that all the college and high school graduates are hearing this year: that it doesn’t matter how educated they are, come graduation day they will not be able to find a job. Just this evening I heard my girl tell her younger brother that when he ventures off to college in several years she will probably be back living at home – not a terrible fate but not the one most young adults (or their parents) have in mind. These days it seems easier to instill values than it is to instill optimism. I keep trying to think of my parents, growing up during the Depression and then World War II and how they never could have foreseen the prosperity that came after those times. They said that during the 1950s, it was like the sun coming out for the first time after a long winter. While we have not endured the same kinds of darkness they did, we are nonetheless steeped in a fog of misinformation and cynicism that gives us no clear path back into the light. Even the foundations of faith and democracy feel less solid than they once did – why should academia be immune?
Hope springs eternal, though – and I cling to the cliché. I recall the moment last fall when our girl was perched on the edge of her seat in one of those lecture halls at the school she will attend, listening to a professor reveal the threads of evolution in a Victorian poem. I see the books pile up in her room that are summer reading for fun (Nabokov? Seriously?), I hear her name the movies she wants to see this summer and note not a single zombie or vampire walks among them. And I remind myself – again – that the way we acquire knowledge is less important that the way we prioritize, sift and synthesize it, and the way we apply it is most important of all. Whether colleges and universities are funding that process – and putting salaries and teaching fellowships ahead of laundry services and coffee bars – is what we are about to find out.