Editorial: Is college a privilege or a necessity?

Editorial Board

For hundreds of years — certainly for the period in which the world has been home to Iowa State — education has been thought of as the key to future success in public life just as much as in private life. After all, “knowledge is power,” the old saying goes.

Today’s society thinks of college as an economic investment.

The 2012 Republican Party platform implies college is a place where we acquire job training. Citing increasing costs and debt as well as unemployment among recent college graduates, they said: “It is time to get back to basics and to higher education programs directly related to job opportunities.”

That same day, Tuesday, President Barack Obama said in the speech he gave on Central Campus that “in America, higher education isn’t a luxury — it’s an economic necessity that every family should be able to afford.”

Today, we view higher education as a commodity that can be bought, sold, traded and marketed. A college education has a value that can be expressed in monetary, material terms. If graduates cannot take whatever they learned from their classes and market it, modern society feels the lesson is not worth having.

Is work really all we do with our lives? Do we do nothing but labor? Is there nothing else worth doing or learning about?

The modern — or postmodern — concept of education differs from earlier times.

The “higher” part of higher education refers not to an older age at which students attend school, but a higher plane of intellectual and character existence. Higher education is supposed to foster belonging and drive ambition for recognition and a life spent in public. Its purpose is not job placement but quality citizenship.

To be a citizen is to be selfless. Selflessness can only happen if we are not motivated by basic needs such as food, shelter, and clothing, which these days, are economic concerns.

One of the best lessons in what a college education is for comes from the 1994 movie “Shawshank Redemption.” At one point the protagonist, a prisoner named Andy, listens to Mozart’s opera “The Marriage of Figaro” in the warden’s office. As punishment, Andy was confined for a month. When he got out, his fellow prisoners asked him how he managed to stay sane.

His response was simple: “I had Mr. Mozart to keep me company.” He pointed to his head and said: “It was in here,” then to his heart: “And it was in here.”

Education is like music. Inside your head, it can never be taken away from you. But if what is inside your head is only what other people deem profitably useful, you have nothing that is truly your own. In giving you nothing that is priceless, that cannot be assigned a number value, your education will have failed you.