We habitually consider the university to be an institution of higher learning, that is, a place where students go to learn. Let’s imagine for a moment a university at which the quality of instruction surpasses every other school. At this imaginary university, you could learn anything you wanted to know better than at any other school. Another unique aspect of this school, however, is that it doesn’t award any diploma upon completion of the curriculum. The sole benefit it provides for your well-spent money is a life-changing education. Would this school have a large and active student body? I would hope so, but the truth is I think most people invest their money at an academic institution expecting to obtain credentials and greater earning power.
In response to this trend, Hugh Nibley quoted Brigham Young:
Will education feed and clothe you, keep you warm on a cold day, or enable you to build a house? Not at all. Should we cry down education on this account? No. What is it for? The improvement of the mind; to instruct us in all arts and sciences, in the history of the world, in the laws of nations; to enable us to understand the laws and principles of life, and how to be useful while we live.1
This, of course, was before the time when education was linked so thoroughly with economic success. Today, in our modern universities, we have forgotten the true intent of education. The purpose of the modern university has evolved, and now its purpose is to be the gatekeeper of a higher economic status. Today, when we talk about education, we mean certification. A. Legrand Richards notes that “whether American colleges want to admit it or not, their central purpose may be to sort and certify students.”2 He quotes Jencks and Riesman, “Virtually every college course culminates in an examination and a grade, and virtually all college curricula lead to some sort of diploma or degree. A college that does not sort and label its students in this way evidently cannot find a clientele.”2
True, there are businesses who profit in distributing academic resources intended solely for personal enlightenment (e.g. The Learning Company), but these businesses are few, and most academic institutions profit only insomuch as they can increase, directly or indirectly, the earning power of their students via accreditation. A friend of mine once remarked that school is the one business where we are happy to get the least for our money. He meant, of course, that we fool ourselves into believing that we are investing our money to obtain knowledge. If that were really true, we would feel ripped off when our professors let us off early or present an undemanding curriculum. Instead, we rejoice.
Nibley once noted, “To be alive is to be conscious, and to be conscious is to think, and to think is to think about something: ‘The brain craves for information as the body craves for food.'”1 Education, I believe, is (or should be) designed to satisfy this craving. Personally, I believe there is an “intellectual famine” in the land. This is because we, as students, are not seeking to feed our minds, but our wallets.
[Brief addendum in comments]
1. Nibley, Hugh. “More Brigham Young on Education.” Available here.
2. Richard, A. Legrand. “The Theory of Medieval Torture and the Modern School: or the Scarlet C–.”