Whether you’re a returning upperclassman, a transfer student, or a freshman straight out of the high school doors, a question either has or eventually will arise about the reason for going to college in the first place.
In the last few months, I have been mentally preparing for my third return to UNCG. It’s not just to get everything unpacked and set up my dorm room, but it’s also because I was given an interesting thought before taking my leave last semester. My dorm director asked me to answer a question for him and gave me a couple days to think on it; his question was simple: What exactly is “higher learning?” What does it mean and why do we go to college in the first place?
My first initial instinct was to claim that I needed to succeed in college to better my life and get a good job, but he immediately interjected by saying that there are plenty of people who don’t have a college degree and hold decent if not exceptional positions at their workplaces making good money.
Another idea that I threw around in my head was that my parents constantly pressured me to go beyond them and get good grades because it would make me look better than I would if I just had a high school diploma. Yet again, my director discarded my thought when he asked rhetorically if I would always do things to make my parents happy rather than do things for myself.
As I continued to toy with the questions, I began to ask around. Some of my fellow UNCG students claimed that they were there so that they could get a degree, some to please their parents, and some even said that they were using college to remain out of the relentlessly ruthless job market for a few more years, hoping it might simmer down.
Immediately throwing away the ideal that college is simply a waste of time or that nothing is accomplished from it, I arrived at an impasse. Many would insist that college has a profound impact on those who attend while others admit that they are just utilizing it as a centralized, safe location where they can get a meal and stay warm for four years.
What is “higher learning,” however? Is it power? Is it knowledge? Is it the notion that we must surpass everything and everyone in our way and acquire the highest paying job? Maybe it is the hope that one day we will be successful due to the decision we made to survive college and all of its trials. Perhaps it is none of these options; what if the phrase “higher learning” is simply a means for society to peer pressure us by making those who do not conform feel inferior?
For example, two people might have the exact same position at a part-time job; however, when the two are compared, the one with the college degree might be looked at as superior between the two for their more knowledgeable status as someone who brandishes a diploma versus the other who may have called it quits after high school. This notion is not far from how college graduates and non-college goers are viewed daily, and is very problematic.
During the final weeks at my high school, the chatter was fixed on plans for our futures at college; those that weren’t college bound were relatively ignored or disregarded entirely. Does that imply that higher learning refers to the college student as someone who goes to college only to avoid judgement?
The issue remains that this is something for everyone to trifle with in their own thoughts. Regardless if you are a senior on their last leg or a freshman who hasn’t gotten their foot in the door yet, a reason will never be clearly defined.
Are we struggling through college life solely to better ourselves, but in a sense that we just seek for higher standings in the world beyond that of wealth? Is that the meaning behind the loaded term, “higher learning?” Is it just a place of further learning beyond high school, that instead of utilizing it to become more knowledgeable, we do so we can get a greater pay rate or status among peers?
Most importantly, if our resolve towards college is truly that cynical, what is college other than just a rung in the ladder of success? If that is the case, why bother with it in the first place? To those who may hold a more cynical viewpoint of college, a degree is just a piece of paper telling people you can do things without screwing up too badly.