by Dylan Klein
In Up, Simba, an essay collected in Rolling Stone, David Foster Wallace describes his seven-day experience with John McCain and the McCain 2000 campaign staff. Much of the essay describes Wallace’s inner battle between belief in American politics and cynicism about it. On the one hand, Wallace believes that McCain is a genuine leader who, when he says he will “Always. Tell you. The truth,” is saying so candidly. On the other hand, Wallace recognizes that there is a distinct possibility that McCain’s desire to appear anti-bullshit is the work of “some very shrewd, clever marketers trying to market [McCain’s] rejection of shrewd, clever marketing.” Wallace suspects that most of politics’ rhetoric is basically a marketing technique to sell a candidate or a piece of legislation to the public. Real leadership, Wallace argues, is by nature done out of an interest greater than the self.
Wallace suggests that every American deals with “a sort of interior war between [his] deep need to believe and [his] deep belief that the need to believe is bullshit.” In many ways, this interior war is comparable to an ongoing boxing match between two men over a woman. The fighting men are Cynicism and Idealism, and each tries to beat his enemy to a pulp in order to win the favor of the woman. The woman represents the American public, and the boxers are fighting for her heart. The arena in which the fight occurs represents the classroom, the office, the living room, and the media. This paper will examine how that fight occurs in the classroom. Many people argue that the ideals that a college education was supposed to foster have been eroded by the drive for money, at the cost of education. A healthy dose of cynicism and deep reflection about the ideological purpose of college will help us to recognize the flaws in the current approach to higher education and fix the mistakes we have been making.
Many Americans still hold the decades-old belief that the main purpose of a college education is to become educated, in that a student must engage with multiple viewpoints, often those that challenge their convictions; take classes across numerous disciplines in order to be well-rounded; possibly find a passion for a subject they might never have encountered without college; and learn about themselves and their common role as a human being in an interconnected world. Yet recent trends, such as the substitution of distribution requirements for a core curriculum, the allowance for safe spaces on campuses, and the rising costs of tuition despite the ever-increasing endowments of colleges, have caused many Americans to become cynical about the true purpose of college, and believe that the college system’s primary aspiration is to earn a profit rather than educate America’s future leaders.
College administrators today are willing to sell a dumbed-down education to students and parents who no longer understand the value of the ideal college education. Some parents mistakenly think they are getting more from their money when they visit a college and see expensive gyms and fancy facilities. However, the opposite is true. Today, many colleges cunningly market their replacement of the core curriculum with distribution requirements, because they know that this replacement is what is in demand and a tool with which they can maximize their profits. This anything-for-money approach is problematic because distribution requirements are less stringent and can be satisfied with classes taken in high school. Colleges cater to the demands of the student to make a profit by creating safe spaces that insulate students from beliefs that challenge their own convictions. The final evidence that college is no longer a place where students get educated according to the original ideal is the overemphasis colleges place on getting a job and making money after graduation. Colleges, with help from the media, aggressively market the idea that every American needs a college education in order to make it to the middle class. This may in fact be true. However, the reason why many are cynical about the benefit of a college education, especially a private school education, is that wages post-graduation are not enough to pay off student debt.
True leadership, as described by Wallace, cannot arise from self-interest. In this case, colleges don’t provide leadership because they seek to profit first and educate second. Therefore, today’s private college is no longer an institution for education, but an industry, similar to finance or to Hollywood.
But maybe the purpose of America’s higher education system has always been to make a profit, and the only thing that has changed is the demand of the consumer. Once, Americans wanted their children to take a core curriculum and engage with peers and scholars who had differing ideas. Now, Americans want their children to specialize for a career, have access to fancy rock walls, be able to play with bunny rabbits while their peers voice their opinions to a half-empty classroom, and earn six figures by age 25. However, I believe true leadership requires a desire to educate first and earn profit second.
I also believe that it is possible for consumers to get their money’s worth and for educators to make profit at the same time. Consumers must demand that colleges stop increasing the price of tuition beyond the rate of inflation and give more of their large endowments to help pay the tuition for students who can’t afford to go, rather than use that money for rock walls, fancy gyms, and safe space administrators. Society would be better off if educators would do more to help break down the money barrier to education. Furthermore, consumers must demand the restoration of core curriculums. At the same time, students and parents should demand the continuance of good job and internship preparation in order to increase the chances of success in the working world.
Americans should maintain a certain level of cynicism regarding the way that colleges market themselves, because doing so will give them a clearer picture of what they are buying when they pay tuition, and what they should be buying. Wallace and I both believe that true leadership can have an equal, if not greater effect than money on society. It is necessary to remain optimistic about the possibility of life in our classrooms, living rooms, offices, and media to match our most idealistic aspirations.
Wallace, David Foster. “Consider the Lobster and Other Essays.” New York: Little, Brown, 2005. Print.