Apparently, adults are still telling children who will definitely be going to go to college that they should try to get into the best college possible. Moreover, apparently we teachers are actively encouraging our high-flying students to get into the highest-ranked college possible.
Here's my argument that this is an awful thing and that we should stop.
You'll learn more at the top-notch universities.
Let's start with the observation that universities don't typically do anything interesting, teaching-wise. The bread and butter and meat and potatoes and carrots and salmon of your college education is the lecture. And lecture isn't terribly effective, as kids know when they're in high school but seem to forget six months later at good old U of Suck, where all pedagogical sins are forgiven. If you're getting an education in lectures, you're not getting much of an education at all, at least not from your classroom time.
(As long as we're here: forcing students to figure out a way to learn despite your lousy teaching is not a valid way of teaching intellectual independence. Good teaching promotes independence, along with everything else.)
If you're being lectured to, then who cares where you go for your lectures? It just doesn't make sense, as far as learning goes.
So what are you paying for?
The big bill at a college is for everything besides the classroom. The costs of research. The costs of school spirit. The costs of food, board, and Spring Fling.
More charitably, you're getting as many clubs and hobbies as you can imagine. There's symphony and pop symphony and jazz orchestra and quartet and other quartet and chamber music and I'm clearly exhausting my knowledge of music but the point is that you have a lot of things you get to be involved in, OK? Lots of chances to play oboe, or plays sports, or basically express yourself and chase your interests in a social manner.
(I know this isn't news to you, but the children, they don't quite get it yet.)
If you want to pay for that, then go ahead, but I watch my college friends drop their hobbies right after school. If you want to grow your spirit, you need to figure out how to fit art into your life without the ready-made structure and convenience of campus.
Look, people care about what college you went to. They just do, right? Because it signals to employers that you're someone smart and capable. Are you really more capable? Well, it doesn't matter if it's true, because people treat it like it's true. Going to a fancy college helps you lead a comfortable life. It makes it easier to get your dream job, or even a regular job. You have the right to pursue comfort.
This is the argument I hear the most. It's the argument my family and mentors offered me when I was in high school. It's what I hear from college advisers, kids and teachers.
Let's consider an analogy.
Let's consider beauty.
Now, being beautiful helps you get ahead in this world. It's true! People judge you as relatively competent. If you're beautiful, it's more likely that you'll get the job, that you'll be paid what you deserve to be paid plus a little bit more. In short, being beautiful helps you lead a comfortable life, economically speaking.
Would we advise our friends and students to pursue beauty? To pay thousands and thousands for surgery, to take out loans for our wardrobes?
"No!" we would say. "That's all wrong. It's not comfort that makes a life meaningful and worthwhile. I mean, look, comfort is important, but at what cost? Why pursue comfort if it's just built on something as meaningless as your appearance. Besides, beauty can fade, and then what is your life built on? If your entire life is built around beauty, then even as your beauty fades you'll be forced to endlessly chase it, to create a delusional sense of your own attractiveness well-past it's due date. What's left then?"
"Besides, what about unattractive people? People will just have a worse life because they happened to be ugly? That's hardly fair, and it's downright wrong. I don't want to live in a world where we punish people for their appearance."
Every time an Honors student applies to Harvard, a child is going under the knife. Can we please stop pretending like this is a good idea?