Why College?

There are many reasons given for higher education, but how many of them take seriously ultimate questions and the permanent things?

The question—“Why college?”—lends itself to numerous, often amusing, answers: Colleges are designed to keep millions of youth off the labor market. Colleges are preparations for jobs. Colleges are funded country clubs that provide housing, board, games, social life, and delight during the least easily manageable period of human life. Colleges are run by political states to indoctrinate the young in the ideology of its (the state’s) choice. Colleges are set apart from politics wherein what is not political can be freely discussed. Colleges are places where we learn how to “research” things. Colleges are places where we develop new ideas. Colleges are places where we keep old ideas. Colleges are places where we defend silly ideas. Colleges are hi-tech training grounds wherein the future is anticipated. Colleges are degree-giving institutions mandatory for everyone. Colleges are places where professors are free to think whatever they want. Colleges are places designed for the benefit of their administrators. Colleges are all of the above. Colleges are none of the above.

Samuel Johnson, the mere reading of whom is a college education by itself, appears to have not completed his stay at Pembroke College, Oxford. He said, however, that the best thing we could do for a boy was “to teach him how to read.” The only addendum we might attach to that excellent advice is a recollection of C. S. Lewis. He relates that he grew up in a home in which there were many basic books and not much else to do in Belfast but read them. This advice about reading makes us wonder about the famous aphorism—“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” I believe Lewis was called “Jack,” though I doubt that this admonition applied to him.

It does make us wonder what place “play” has in college. I do think that drama, music, and sports—both playing in them and watching them—have a place in college. Indeed, they may have a more central purpose than we are usually wont to assign to them. Things are taught on the playing fields of Eton that few professors know about unless they also played in their youth.

We may, in fact, live in a culture in which exists very few real “colleges” to which we might apply or attend. It may be that if everyone has a “right” to a degree, no one learns much of anything. The purpose of college is, in part, to establish that not every opinion is true. We must choose between what is true and what is not. If we are taught or assume that everything is true, with no distinctions, we will soon enough wonder why our souls feel so empty. Why indeed should we study if everything is equally true or equally false? In a world of cultural relativism, we can have no adventures. We can have no stories that end “happily ever after.” They just end. To say that they end “happily” is a judgment we are unable to make.

We may, as I have often argued, pretty much have to educate ourselves. We need to “make a living,” as it is called. Some of the world’s most learned people have also found time to earn enough money to have families, homes, and deal with daily affairs. Colleges do not exist to make us klutzes who can do nothing much but get up in the morning. From Greek philosophy, which taught us much of what we need to know about the most important things, we recall the Thracian maidens.

Plato’s story goes that on seeing two philosophers walking down the road discussing the higher things, these charming young ladies giggled. Why did they giggle? The philosophers, locked in contemplation, fell into a hole they did not see. The image of the philosopher as a most “impractical” man is an ancient one. Yet philosophy—and yes, college—exists to make us aware of impractical things, things that have no “use,” the things that are well worth falling into a hole about even if we be laughed at.

There is also Chesterton’s remark that when we do not know how to fix something, we go to a mechanic or plumber. When the craftsman does not know what is wrong, we go to the engineer who designed the contraption. When he does not know the problem, we finally have to go to the man who knows about the theoretical things on which all things are based. Finally, we have to wonder: “Why do things work anyhow?” And, even more, we must wonder: “Why it is that some relationship exists between our minds and what is out there?” “Why do some bridges collapse and others do not?” It seems to be because one bridge builder knows enough of the laws of nature to build one, while the other one does not. The experience of getting things wrong is the incentive for getting them right.

Dorothy Sayers wrote a famous essay called “The Lost Tools of Learning”. She implied that we do not just go out there and learn something; we must first have “tools” of the mind that teach us why it is that what we know is true or false. The “tools” of learning are not the learning itself. The tools of a carpenter’s trade can all be laid out on the ground. As such, they will tell us practically nothing about what the house the carpenter is building will look like. For that, the builder already has to have something in his head. The thought of something (including the universe itself) comes before things that make up the whole.


The most succinct definition of a human being is that he is a “rational” animal. The animal part is not somehow superfluous even in his knowing. He is not, in other words, a spirit who is just accidentally attached to a body. Yet, man is a being like and yet totally unlike any other being in the universe. The Greeks noticed that something “godlike” hovered about man’s knowledge. Indeed, they thought it was worth spending much of our lives with these things—the deathless things, the immortal things. In his thinking, man found that some things could not be otherwise and still be what they are. Other things changed. They even ceased to exist. Man himself seemed both changing and unchanging. Where could one go to think of these things?

When we look at man’s power of knowing, we notice that much of it seems to be based on mathematics, on quantity. Yet we seem to have knowledge that is not based in mathematics. Some things we cannot know unless they allow us to know them. No “scientific” knowledge of a human being will ever tell us of the life of any particular person. If we compare the human species to, say, the feline or bovine species, we note that our knowledge of cats or cattle is mainly concerned with the uses we make of them, though they are real, living things. It is true that we may have a pet cat or a pet cow about which we notice certain characteristics that make this cow different from that cow. In the case of human beings, we really know very little about Sally or John if we only know the general characteristics of the human species: how much they weigh, the color of their eyes, and so forth.

What is interesting about Sally or John is not that one or the other may have cancer, but what is their life like even with cancer or, conversely, with some form of good fortune. To learn about the human race, it is not enough to know medicine. In fact, Plato and Aristotle pointed out that the purpose of a doctor is to cure us so that we no longer need a doctor. A doctor, qua doctor, is not interested in us as precisely Sally or John, as individual persons, but as patients who need to be restored to normal life.

By implication, the real issue is this: What is human life about if we are not sick? By extension, economics is the discipline that deals with the provision of what is necessary to live—food, clothing, housing. We speak of “aid to the poor,” but we seldom ask: “What is it we do when we are not poor?” If our lives are spent just on keeping us alive and providing necessities and even luxuries, it seems like a fairly empty life, even though providing for others is a noble task.

These observations bring us back to the question: “Why college?” Notice that I use the word “college” here rather “equivocally.” That is, what I think a college is has little to do with the institution that now carries the name “college” or “university.” What college is essentially “for” has somehow disappeared from institutions that bear its noble name. Colleges and universities have somehow gotten into the business of “remaking” man either biologically or psychologically, historically, or politically, into something that he is not in nature and should not even want to be. The reason for this change, as I have argued in The Modern Age, is a concern about the location of the “City of God,” to use Augustine’s famous term. The “City of God,” the proper location and meaning of our ultimate happiness, is transcendent to us. It is not the object of our own proper “construction.”

The original meaning of a university or college had to do with recognizing this truth. The transformed meaning denies that any transcendence is proper to the study of man. The result is that all we know about our past and our nature from philosophical reflection is worthless, at best a curiosity. We have to replace it by our own constructs. Thus, we do not study “literature” or “history”—what men actually do or did—but what they can be “made” or constructed to do through science and politics. What human life is really about in its classical understanding is thus rendered “useless” even for appreciating what we are.

We are busy “making” or “re-making” what we are. We do not “research” the world as it is but as it “ought” to be based on theories that presuppose the classical and revelational understandings of man are wrong. We elaborate and carry out grandiose plans and research projects for the “improving” of the human race. We seek to eliminate manifest diseases and sins, so that we can be “happy,” to which happiness we have a “right”.

We thus no longer “read” what it is that actual living men are really like or what their destiny as unique human persons really is. What we have not realized—and this is perhaps what college is for—is that the given world that is is somehow far happier and a far more dignified place than any alternative the modern mind has imagined. Indeed, the world we are educated in is mostly an “imagined” world, not the world based on the being we are given. This is why we do not read in existing institutions the literature that explains us to ourselves. The main thing that modern comparative literature does not compare is the world of classical and revelational reason, the only world in which real “romance” can exist.

In fact, a connection exists between the decline of population in “developed” countries and the loss of romance in our literature. Indeed, why do we no longer read classic literature, the literature that details what individual and personal human life is like? It is because it undermines the artificial world that is being built by our politics and science. This construction is rootless, based solely on the proposition that no intelligence exists in the world but that of the human mind presupposed to nothing but itself.


So, why college? The world, it seems, would be incomplete unless there was within it a being who was not God, but who could “know” it. This “knowing” implies that something already existed in the world worth knowing. If that were the case, we have to wonder from whence this thing to be known came about. The world thus is not only something to “wonder” about. Samuel Johnson chided the intellectual laziness of those who did not trouble themselves to know it. It is not just that it is there to be known, but there are also “there”—already in the universe—those who are meant to know it and its “plan.” And in knowing these things, they came to know one another.

We know many things about the structure and workings of the cosmos; we know much now about what is. The most difficult thing to know, the most dramatic and rewarding thing to know, is the drama of each other, of our lives. We contemplate the working out of our destiny, of our relation to the “City of God.” What we call scientific knowledge is not nearly adequate to learn of these latter things.

We can only learn of others through conversation and love and willingness. We need the history of actual individuals, tribes, peoples, and nations. That history bears the reality of real lives, actually lived, and not just projected lives based on some theory about reconstructed man. Poetry and literature, as well as history and biography, tell us of lived lives that are related to our own. When we only know our own lives, we do not know enough to know ourselves. We need time to read; and we need to read not of necessity but of pleasure—of leisure.

The adventure of human life on this planet is not something that falls under the category of “necessity.” We have the suspicion, also a theological suspicion, that none of this, including ourselves, need to have existed. Though things about us seem to be “of necessity,” we ourselves seem more the result of something being given, and given freely. We fall more in the category of gift than of necessity.

Solzhenitsyn said of his time in the Gulag, that it was when they took everything away from him that he realized most clearly that he was free. What they could not take was his will. And the will is a power that, being directed to what is good, depends on truth. The same Solzhenitsyn, in his famous Harvard address of 1978, pointed out that over one of the Gates there was the word “VERITAS”—truth. I believe this lettering was originally a quotation from the Apostle John. It loses a lot when mis-translated as merely “Veritas” without reference to Logos.

Why college? Ultimately, college exists so that we are freed by knowing the relation between “Veritas” and “Logos,” between “Cosmos” and our minds, between the what is and the “I am.”

About James V. Schall, S.J. 153 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until recently retiring. He is the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His most recent book is Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism (Ignatius Press). Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.