College is the new high school

Emily Percival

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Photo Credit : Bullion

College is the new high school. The emphasis is as much on personal growth and development as on academics; as much about learning to kayak as mastering economics. The Whitman Web site says that students here “find a balance between challenging academics and developing enduring and meaningful personal relationships through an involved campus community.” And it’s true; when I look at the student body I see active, involved students. I applaud the emphasis on exploring a diversity of interests, but I admit that I was done with high school when I graduated in 2006. I was ready to specialize, and that’s not what people do at Whitman.

This move toward holistic learning sounds good on paper: it lured me and all of my close friends to private liberal arts colleges: but many of us found our eyes were bigger than our stomachs; we found that after working so hard in high school to prove ourselves well-rounded enough to gain entrance to an educational institution like Whitman, we absolutely did not want to become rounder.

Staring off into the big unknown, with friends shouldering debt without any employable skills, with friends who value their time at Whitman but recognize they could have just gone and done what they wanted to do, makes me realize that the well-rounded educational model risks erasing all your sharp edges, the edges that hook into areas and make you want to do that thing, that one thing, and do it well enough to get paid for it. In this economy, is it acceptable to educate students in this model and tell them that the requisite investment of time and money is a good one?

In other words: Whitman is not enough about academics, and it is not up-front about what kind of life academics prepares you for. I’d like to see more policy-oriented classes, more classes partnering with local businesses and institutions so that the worth of our classes in the “real world” is palpable; if that worth cannot be traced directly to the “real world,” then those classes, those fields, need to be explicit about the fact that their worth is in academia, that the “Whitman bubble” more or less leads to the bubble of another, higher academic institution. Until Whitman makes this transfer, it is simply another high school, preparing us not for the world but for more academics.

Ralph Nader spoke at Cordiner Hall last week, and though I found his talk mostly scattershot and boring, he articulated something that had been floating around my brain for a while: This is an incredible position we young people are in: we may be wiser in later decades, have fuller lives, but we will likely never again have this freedom, this creativity to shape our lives, this idealism, this ability to move to Washington, DC, for a poverty-line policy job. Instead, where are we? Incurring thousands of dollars of debt for the opportunity to incur more debt.

So, as I leave Whitman, this is what I want to say: Grow up, people. Find something and do it. Whitman, you’re great at aiding us in our search. Help us in the doing, too.

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