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College: Consumption or Character?

By Patricia Bruininks, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology, and Nathan King, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Philosophy

Psychology and philosophy have made headlines lately – and not in a good way. At a recent South Carolina Town Hall Meeting, presidential hopeful Jeb Bush said the following: "Universities ought to have skin in the game. When a student shows up, they ought to say 'Hey, that psych major deal, that philosophy major thing, that's great, it's important to have liberal arts … but realize, you're going to be working [at] a Chick-fil-A.'"

Set aside the fact that Bush himself has a liberal arts degree. Focus instead on the assumption that lies behind his remark, and similar ones on the democratic side. The assumption is that the main reason students should go to college is that it will enable them to get a job.

We (a psychologist and a philosopher) disagree. To be sure, improving one's job prospects is one of the many good reasons to pursue a college education. And of course professors have a duty to help their graduates find gainful employment. We and our colleagues work diligently to this end. But the exclusive vocational focus of much recent education-talk is problematic for at least two reasons. First, it encourages a consumerist approach to education, with negative psychological effects. Second, it obscures a grander vision of college: the view that college is for the development of character.

The culture in which we live encourages us to see ourselves as consumers as much as to identify with being American or Christian. This has led to commodifying parts of our culture that were not originally seen as goods to be traded for money, including animals (factory farms), people (sweatshops and sex trafficking), college sports, and education. It has also led to what Benjamin Barber refers to as the "infantilization" of adults by emphasizing easy over hard, simple over complex, and fast over slow. Nuanced arguments regarding important social issues are replaced with simplistic thinking that appeals to our baser instincts. And immediate access to everything outweighs psychological health that comes with a slower-paced lifestyle. (Recent research has shown that being primed by pictures of fast-food restaurants leads to a decrease in savoring events and an increase in impatience.)

This infantilization affects education by discouraging academic rigor in favor of courses that ensure an 'A'. It also places the importance of individual outcomes over citizenship. This, combined with an increased focus on things that can be measured (e.g., GPA, percentage of students who seek post-baccalaureate education within a year after graduation), steers us to value potential annual income over potential human development.

If college isn't solely for job preparation, then what is it for? There are many possible answers here, some better than others. We suggest that any complete answer must include this: college is for the development of intellectual character. Job training isn't enough: graduates rarely remain in the same job for a lifetime. Knowledge isn't enough: in many disciplines, today's knowledge is bound for tomorrow's dustbin. Skill development is better – especially when the skills are highly transferrable (e.g., logical reasoning and writing). But to prepare graduates with just a set of skills is still not enough – skills can be misapplied in efforts to obscure unjust causes, or to denigrate one's opponents. What is desperately needed is education that produces graduates who are curious, creative, open-minded, fair-minded, humble, intellectually courageous, persevering, intellectually careful and wise.

These traits may be helpfully labeled "intellectual virtues." They are traits that Whitworthians already value. (To see this, visit the university's Whitworth 2021 strategic plan; these traits are featured prominently.) Such virtues are important for several reasons. First, the exercise of intellectual virtue tends to result in knowledge and true beliefs, which are good in their own right. Second, because beliefs often affect actions, one's intellectual character has a pervasive influence on what we do. As Christian author Philip Dow notes, "If you are... tempted to think that intellectual character has little to do with practical Christian living, try loving your neighbor as yourself while practicing intellectual hastiness. It can't be done." Third, consider the many questions that today's thoughtful Christian must address – questions at the intersection of faith, politics, science and justice. Such questions share this in common: they are very difficult questions. We won't think well about them without intellectual carefulness, perseverance, and humility. To the extent that an education of mind and heart seeks to produce graduates who think well about such matters, it must seek to produce intellectually virtuous graduates. Only if it does so will Whitworthians be prepared to honor God, follow Christ, and serve humanity. As value added, if testimony from numerous employment firms is representative, intellectual virtue might even help our graduates get jobs.

Recommended Reading:

Benjamin Barber, Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2007)

Philip Dow, Virtuous Minds (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2013).