Two thousand twenty-one was a hard year for colleges: admissions are down, revenues are diminished, and four-year degree alternatives are achieving greater market recognition. In such a climate, colleges need to answer the question increasingly asked by high school students and their parents: why should one attain a college degree? To thrive in the coming years, colleges need to recover an ability to articulate how collegiate study can existentially transform the student.
College is worthwhile, and the traditional, residential, four-year degree can be worth the cost if the goal is personal transformation. College is not ultimately about the degree, though the degree plays a goal-orienting role. The goal of collegiate education, as Hillsdale College history professor Dr. Mark Kalthoff explains, is freeing the soul from ignorance. Education prepares the graduate to step into a world of practical realities and urgent choices after having completed a final season of leisured study which results in perceiving deeper meaning in the world. College is about personal transformation, about becoming the person who sees more in the world. Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, in Either/Or, describes this kind of existential change.
Kierkegaard focused on the human experience as subjective. While we live in an objective reality, Kierkegaard argued, humans experience that reality subjectively. As such, the most important human capacity is that of making real choices. Through choice, the person forms himself into who he is becoming. While Kierkegaard focuses on all of life as the place where choices occur, his argument about perceiving “the choice” parallels the kind of perception formed by rigorous collegiate study.
In “The Balance Between the Esthetic and the Ethical in the Development of the Personality,” Kierkegaard contends that few people realize that they form themselves through choices. In perceiving this capacity, the individual acquires a moral responsibility for self-development. “To be, or not to be” a person of depth, meaning, and weight–that literally is Kierkegaard’s question. The essay is written from the Judge’s perspective to the Aesthete. In their dialogue, Kierkegaard opposes two different understandings of a beautiful life. These two different views parallel the options facing a hypothetical college student: should he study worthwhile subjects, going through the difficult work of self-formation, or waste the opportunity of collegiate study through dissolute living and easy courses? By considering college through this Kierkegaardian lens, the real value of college becomes clear.
The Judge argues the majority of people lack meaning in their lives: “…so many live out their lives in quiet lostness; they outlive themselves, not in the sense that life’s content successively unfolds and is now possessed in this unfolding, but they live, as it were, away from themselves and vanish like shadows.” In contrast to the masses, the individual who accepts himself as his task accepts the responsibility to treat himself as an ethical reality. This realization prompts the moral duty to develop oneself.Professors, office hours, and rigorous academic expectations all contribute to shaping the student into who he or she is becoming.
In choosing to live consistently, an individual makes his personality concrete through each choice he makes: “The choice itself is crucial for the content of the personality: through the choice the personality submerges itself in that which is being chosen, when it does not choose, it withers away in atrophy.” When one realizes “the choice,” one will either live in light of his responsibility for self-formation, or he will reject that reality. Kierkegaard’s “Either/Or” is all about realizing the role that the individual plays in forming his own existence. Recognizing the choice and consciously determining to choose consistently in the same direction is the life Kierkegaard terms “the ethical.” Life acquires moral seriousness when one realizes that he faces an “either/or” – either he will accept that his choices truly matter, or he will reject the existence of the choice and float through life aimlessly.
The one who chooses the “ethical” life and accepts the task of self-formation through choices achieves the highest form of beauty in his life. The alternative to the Ethical life is that of the Aesthete, who is characterized by a fleeting pursuit of pleasure and ignorance of the choice. He does not consciously choose evil, but rather through his ignorance of his ethical responsibility for self-formation, misunderstands the moral weight of his life and unthinkingly wastes himself in dissolute living.
The task of college is to produce within the student an awareness of the possibilities and the necessities of self-formation. Transformation occurs in the realization of the choice between different ways of life, and the determination to form the self through choosing: “Here he then possesses himself as a task in such a way that it is chiefly to order, shape, temper, inflame, control—in short, to produce an evenness in the soul, a harmony, which is the fruit of the personal virtues.” When students grasp the possibilities for a life spent forming themselves, they perceive themselves and their studies as loci of meaning in a meaningful world.
The student arrives in college already adept at the life of the Aesthete. Odds are good that the student is well trained in whatever habits the admissions office requires, and they can demonstrate proficiency in a variety of subjects. College should summon the student to something deeper, something more satisfying, something freeing, while inspiring a lifetime of loving pursuit. Whether that is answering Socrates’ questions (“What is justice?”), learning linear algebra, or contemplating Wallace Stevens’ “blue guitar,” collegiate study offers to the student a season of deep study in a worthy tradition of thought. Immersion in that tradition becomes transformative.
Over the college years, the student encounters professors who challenge, texts that perplex, and questions that require answers. In short, college should be a time where the student, regardless of major, discovers the complexity of the world; such a season prepares the student to live well within the post-college world.
Becoming a person who engages reality deeply is not the work of a weekend intensive or a single semester course. It requires a prolonged season of sustained study guided by those who have gone before the student on this path of transformation. Therefore, self-transformation as a goal justifies the cost, time, and effort of college. It also places a demand on colleges to be places where that kind of transforming work occurs. A transformative encounter with knowledge does not happen through an endless sea of adjuncts, nor can such efforts happen through a majority-online collegiate experience. There are relational and physical components to this process that are irreducibly complex. Professors, office hours, and rigorous academic expectations all contribute to shaping the student into who he or she is becoming.
This prophetic challenge is the “still more excellent way” that colleges should adopt in justifying their existence. The endless rounds of hedonism (lazy rivers, party culture, all majors being equal), administrative bloat (including the rise of the DEI industry), excessive building campaigns, and spread of wokeism have led to the present crisis in higher education. Where does the academy go from here? By articulating how college can summon students to see more deeply into reality and transform the student into a person who accepts the seriousness of self-formation, colleges can reinvigorate their calling and attract students who long for a sense of meaning and purpose. Such students see collegiate study as the route to determining who they become.
Career placement is too small a goal; college should introduce students to conversations they engage in for the rest of their lives. When students become capable of perceiving the choices that lead to the good life, then college is worth the investment.
Josh Herring is an Assistant Administrator for Thales Academy Apex JH/HS, a PhD student at Faulkner University, and the host of The Optimistic Curmudgeon podcast. He tweets at @TheOptimisticC3.