The Deep Purpose of a College Education by: John Basie

The Deep Purpose of a College Education

In his book The Idea of a College (1959), educator and Harvard chaplain D. Elton Trueblood identified the American cultural assumption regarding the purpose of higher education:

“Millions, when they think of college, think primarily of one thing—how can the student be prepared most perfectly or most quickly to do the work associated with his intended vocation or profession? Why not, many ask, proceed at once to the serious business of technology, which is the distinguishing mark of our age, leaving out all the decorations and fancy courses that are a waste of time” (95)?

More than fifty years later,

Trueblood’s analysis is still accurate.

Students and parents often shop for colleges based only on what they believe a particular four-year degree will do to usher them as quickly as possible into some sector of the marketplace. Granted, healthy ambition is a good thing that parents want (and ought!) to encourage, and a four-year degree in this day and age is a pretty much a requirement for anyone who desires to turn healthy ambition into productive work. And, granted, formal educational credentials are a must in this economy.

The problem with this approach is that, all too often, college shoppers tend to be concerned only about the degree to which a B.A. or a B.S. will help them in attaining that all-important first job. Careerism has, in a real sense, hijacked the deeper purposes of higher education. The age-old question that has been forgotten in this higher education buyer’s market is “How will this four-year education form my character, as well as my intellect?” A liberal arts education, grounded in a biblical worldview answers this question by eschewing careerism and instead proceeds intentionally with new knowledge projects in all disciplines not just for the sake of preparing students for their first job, and not even for the sole purpose of the pursuit of truth (as important as that is).

Christian faculty who have thought well about the deep purposes of higher education believe that these are worthy goals, but they are not goals in and of themselves…rather they are means toward the end of forming a student’s character properly so that the student can discern God’s call upon his or her life. As humans, we bear the imago dei—the image of God—and our education’s deepest purpose should be to cultivate and develop that image holistically in preparation for a life of service in His world.

A college or university guided by the Christian world and life view holds that there ought to be no disparity between the formation of one’s character and the formation of one’s intellect and “skill set” for the sake of a profession. Why did Trueblood believe these concerns ought to be central to the purposes of going to college? Because he understood that man “is worthy of respect, not because of what he is, but of what he represents, and what, under God, he may become” (30).

If you are college searching here are a few questions to ask yourself:

“What are my assumptions about the main purpose of a college education?”

“How can I test those assumptions?”

“In what ways does the image of God in me need to be intentionally cultivated through my college experience?”