These days, there is a widespread attitude about college that its purpose is essentially job training, that the measure of its effectiveness is job placement, and that this–job readiness and placement–is the key to the importance of a college education in promoting social mobility.
An outstanding college-prep program at Columbia University for disadvantaged students demonstrates a different, more essential truth: that the real transformative power of education is in students taking part in the Great Conversation. The program takes low-income Manhattan who are aiming to be the first in their families to go to college and places them in seminars where they read and discuss dense, seminal texts: Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, J.S. Mill. Engaging with the big ideas and the foundational texts that have shaped our world gives students a sense of confidence and competence that changes them on a fundamental level, and that has the power to transform them into fully-functioning, fully engaged members of our political society.
But the distinction of this [program] and the reason it should be replicated is that it doesn’t focus on narrow disciplines, discrete skills, standardized tests. It doesn’t reduce learning to metrics or cast college as a bridge to a predetermined career.
It assumes that these kids, like any others, are hungry for big ideas. And it wagers that tugging them into sophisticated discussions will give them a fluency and confidence that could be the difference between merely getting to college and navigating it successfully, all the way to completion, which for poor kids is often the trickiest part of all.
Montás also wants for these kids what he wants for every college student (and what all of us should want for them as well). If the seminar is successful, he told me, they wind up seeing their place on a continuum that began millenniums ago, and they understand "their fundamental stake in our political debate."
"They read the news differently," he said. "They see themselves as political agents, able to participate."
The New York Times, Plato and the Promise of College
This is the shining glory of a liberal education, and the core significance of college: for the individual, depth, breadth, agency, voice; for society, all of the promise of democracy itself.