The first major decision in the lives of many young people today is whether or not to go to college. There have been times when the question was mainly an economic one, and perhaps it is boiling down to that again, with costs increasing alarmingly so that many private colleges now cost up to ten times as much as state or community ones. But the question needs to be raised often as to whether indeed college is a good thing for all. I am convinced that it is wasteful, dangerous, and unjust to insist that all high school graduates continue their studies for a degree. It is wasteful because many people neither want nor need a college education. It is dangerous because of the unwarranted pressure it puts on reluctant students and on harried teachers. It is unjust as it would be unjust to insist that a hare should learn to walk like a tortoise. Different life-styles make different demands.

Some questions beyond the basic ones (Have you the aptitude? and Can you get the money?) that may help the pre-college young person and those who counsel him are these:

Do you want to go to college? If so, why? To satisfy those who expect you to go? To gain prestige? To find a mate? To get a job? To learn? Unless your reasons include the last, forget about college altogether. If you want to learn, decide whether it is only specific training for a vocation that you are after or whether you want more than a job skill—you want actually to be educated. You may have only a hazy idea of what it is that you want to learn, and this is understandable. You have as yet little ground for making a choice of subject matter. But you must have an “empty cup,” and know that you have it. You must want to be filled. You must be aware that a college is a place where there are people who know more than you do, and you must want what they have to offer.

Then, how badly do you want it? Have you the maturity and the strength of character to stick with your choice? Higher education is a privilege. To decide to accept this privilege is in itself binding. You don’t go into it with a cavalier “I’ll just see if I like it” attitude.

Not long ago a girl who had decided to drop out of college came to me. She wasn’t asking advice about that decision—it had already been made, she kept reminding me. She was asking advice about a boyfriend problem that in some ill-defined way was related to the dropping out. I hadn’t much to say about the boyfriend, but I had plenty to say about her leaving college, and I said it even though she didn’t want to hear it. She had godly parents who had prayed for her and paid for her. She had been doing well in her studies. She didn’t know what she wanted to do, but to go on for a degree, I told her, would at least increase her options. She didn’t seem to care about options. Something would turn up. Well, I said, if nothing else makes sense, how about sticking at a job just because you’ve started it? That idea rang no bells at all with her. “That decision has already been made,” she said again. She meant that it had been made in her own mind, only the night before, although she had not yet informed the authorities. This was the third college she had attended and the grass always looked greener elsewhere. She had not yet learned that circumstances do not entirely determine happiness. No amount of reasoning budged her.

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Have you the maturity of character not only to stick with a choice but to pay the price it entails? Education is not a gift. Nobody can give you an education. Others can make it available, but you have to exercise will, the will to work, the strong resolve to give yourself to a rigorous and costly task that requires attention over a long period. For anything worthwhile there are ifthen conditions. If this is what you want, then this is what you do. To choose to do this is to choose not to do a thousand other things that may be highly attractive. We are fond of saying things like “I’d give anything if I could play the piano like that,” meaning, of course, anything but what it takes. Having a degree is nice, but getting there is not necessarily fun.

Have you the humility to submit to something greater than yourself? There are young people to whom this question would be bewildering. They have been reared in homes and schools where their own opinions on any and all subjects, from the age of two or three, were given rapt hearing and awestruck acceptance. They have been taught that all opinions are of equal value, that the most slapdash sally into the writing of Japanese poetry or the use of finger paints is to be taken seriously and even, heaven forgive us, to be called “creative.” They are unacquainted with any demands for form, logic, or accuracy. Such demands have been felt by parents and teachers to be chilling to young ardent minds—let them somehow grow, learn, “develop,” all by themselves. Their views are, bless their hearts, “original,” and originality, even in spelling, seems to be always commendable.

It is generally thought that when children are allowed to speak out freely on any and all matters they are being encouraged to think. I suspect that the very opposite is true. To encourage the utterance of opinion without reference to any fundamental knowledge of the subject is actually to discourage thought. It is to prejudice the student against thinking altogether. His feelings, his ability to parrot others, and his most superficial reactions “off the top of his head” supplant the intellectual exertion of obtaining and processing data.

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Before going on to college it is well to take stock of all this and acknowledge that there is a long road to travel before one’s opinions are worth much, and that the informed opinions of others who have traveled that road are likely to be not only worth much more but infinitely more interesting. Submit. Give in to them. Be quiet long enough to hear them. There may be some glories up that stony road that will dazzle you.

If the student has ascertained that he has the aptitude, the money, and the earnest desire to get a college education, the next crucial question is which college he will choose. Surely it is better to have no degree at all than to have a mere degree attained at the cost of the student’s soul—i.e., his sense of direction, his values, his goals.

There are, I think, approximately two thousand colleges to choose from. Some of these are nominally, and some distinctively, “Christian.” To choose one college out of two thousand is, of course, to eliminate one thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine others, each of which might have offered something particularly desirable. But the student has to settle on one and accept the limitations of that one and, I hope, stay there. So it is a choice that ought to be made with extreme care.

There is much to be said for attending Christian colleges, and there are strong arguments for attending secular universities. It is not my purpose here to persuade either way. But the choice must be made with the understanding that a liberal arts education, as opposed to vocational training, ought to lay the foundation for an intelligent view of the world and life, a Weltanschauung. The climate of the school—the physical surroundings of classroom, dormitory, and common rooms, the people with whom one lives and studies—is of immense importance in the shaping of this view. Whether the campus is serene and quiet, with beautiful elms and ivied halls, or whether it is unidentifiable as a campus in the midst of a concrete jungle has its effect on the person. Whether there is order or chaos—in classrooms, in dining halls, in the appearance and dress of students and faculty, in the way bedrooms are maintained, in library behavior—cannot help but affect the formation of the Weltanschauung.

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A liberal education ought to lead toward civilization, not toward barbarity. Civilization is “a natural agreement not to burden one another with our excessive humanity,” or, as G. K. Chesterton put it, it is the full authority of the human spirit over all externals. The general look and climate of some institutions of higher learning would make one question whether there was to be found there any full authority over anything, and I have on occasions been greatly burdened—oppressed, in fact—by the excessive humanity of loose-jointed “youth.”

But indisputably it is the professors themselves who exercise the most profound influence on the student. It is not physical plant or athletic teams or numbers of Ph.D’s listed in the catalogue or the latest methods of unstructured classes, group sharing, independent studies, or “creative” courses that in the last analysis educate (a word that derives from the idea of leading or drawing out). It is the professors. Who are these people? Professor used to be defined as one who avows or declares openly his beliefs. There are many who bear the name unworthily. In the modern university, where an atmosphere of almost morbidly exaggerated neutrality on certain subjects often seems to prevail, any open avowal of religious belief would be looked upon as a classroom obscenity. But many professors still do profess. They are intelligent, courageous, convinced, and competent to teach, and of these some are Christians. I think a Christian student who wants to learn to see life whole should go where there are some Christian professors who do.

The student will be exposed to many differing points of view in a secular university, and, to some extent, in a Christian college. This is as it should be. The educated man is the man who can make distinctions, and he must confront the issues before he can distinguish between them. But he should be permitted to confront them honestly, and Christianity should be given “equal time” with the rest. Is the intellectual atmosphere favorable to the fair consideration of any and all philosophies of life, including the Christian philosophy? An honest professor will acknowledge that every philosophy of life either requires God or leaves him out, believes that there is a revelation of God in Christ or there is not. Neutrality on this issue is denial. The Christian student will hope to find some teachers whose Christian beliefs are strongly held and clearly stated, and whose lives are manifestly shaped by those beliefs. For the shape of professors’ lives will have a great deal to do with the shaping of the student’s life. There is no impact in lecture or argument so powerful as the impact of character itself. One cannot expect to find many people who live up to one’s ideals. I consider myself very lucky to have had one great teacher in elementary school, two or three in college, and one in Bible school. “Choose your professors, not your courses,” was good advice, and perhaps this means one should choose professors, if possible, and not colleges. The obvious difficulty often is that one has no way of knowing ahead of time what he will find. But he ought at least to know what he is looking for.

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Finally, in deciding whether or not to go to college, a student ought not to underestimate the effect that that kind of communal life will have upon him. It has been called a “four-year house party.” The student is out from under his parents’ roof, usually for the first time. He is thrown with hundreds or thousands of unmarried people of his own age, all day every day and probably all night, in a situation comparable to resort living in that he is provided with room and meals, with only minimal responsibility for the room and no responsibility for the meals, his bills are all paid for him, and he has nothing to do for anybody else. If he chooses, his life can be unredeemedly selfish and thoughtless. The conversation around him most of the time is likely to deal not with philosophy and religion but with entertainment. The noise level may seem conducive not to the improvement but to the destruction of the mind. (One of the best pieces of news I have heard in a long time is that at some state universities it is now possible to elect to live in a quiet dormitory, where all residents have agreed that they are in college to study. I have not yet heard of such a dormitory on any Christian college campus.)

The prospective student ought to consider whether he is prepared to conform to the social environment of the college of his choice, or, if not to conform, to swim against the current. If he doubts his preparedness, perhaps another year of living with his parents, if they are sympathetic, and working outside his home is indicated. A year’s moratorium on studying may give a fresh perspective from which to assess his goals and gifts. It may also give time for reflection and prayer. The guidance of God is promised scores of times in Scripture, and the student who seriously wants it can have it.

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