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Why is Sending Kids to College So Hard?

You’ve packed your child’s clothes, driven them to college, settled them in their new dorm room, and said a tearful goodbye.

Why do we do this? What now?  

This week my Good Faith podcast co-host David French and I are joined by Meghan Sullivan, philosopher, professor, and creator of the most popular class at the University of Notre Dame, “God and the Good Life.” 

In  her course, Meghan invites students to wrestle with the big questions about what makes life meaningful. She encourages students to examine issues, such as what justifies their beliefs, whether they should practice a religion, and what sacrifices they should make for others. They examine what Aristotle, Plato, and Descartes said about how to live well.  After all, for at least the past 2,500 years, philosophers have taught that goal-seeking is an essential part of what it is to be human – and crucially that we could find our own good life by asking better questions of ourselves and of one another. 

As many of us are reeling from back-to-school activities (and – let’s face it – grief), David French, Meghan, and I discuss:

  • The role of education–and of philosophy in particular–in helping students take on the big questions of life;
  • How parents should approach their newfound empty nest status;
  • How college is instrumental and how it is formative;
  • What it means to live in community;
  • The role friendships play in “the good life;” and
  • What parents and students should expect from higher education.

CURTIS CHANG: I just dropped off one of my daughters for her freshman year.  As I was leaving, I was pondering this question: what do I really hope for her? What is my highest hope that she will experience in her four years of college? And I realized I hope she finds a professor that helps her ask the big questions of life. 

Who would be an example of such a professor? 

Meghan Sullivan is one of the most popular professors at Notre Dame, because she created called “God and the Good Life,” possibly the most popular class at the university. 

Meghan, welcome to Good Faith podcast.

MEGHAN SULLIVAN: I am so excited to be with you guys. Our students moved in last weekend. Last Friday night, I got to go to dinner with about 100 parents.  I was the speaker at a dinner, and we were talking about what a gift it is to be able to give a young person the opportunity of four years of college.  As I walked home to my car that night, there were at least ten crying parents walking out of the building with me. Oh, the emotions are flowing this year!

And then I came in on Saturday to give an opening academic lecture.  Sure enough, a lot of really excited freshmen had tearful eyes processing all the feelings of being in college.

We started off with tears, but this week it seems to be a full blown, unadulterated, Platonic form of college everywhere, all at once.

CURTIS CHANG: There are 20 million college students every year in the U.S.; 12 million of them are full time.  That means there are probably about 4 million families dropping their kids off to college for the first time. 

Why are we all doing this? The most immediate answer is for an instrumental purpose. We believe sending our kids to college will help them get better jobs and have better career options.  Obviously, there are instrumental and professional goals, but something else is going on here. You can tell precisely by the tears – something more visceral and more emotional. 

That’s because college is not just purely instrumental.  It’s meant to be formational. It’s a rite of passage marking a profound transition into adulthood.

Almost every culture has some aspect of that rite of passage leaving home to go somewhere else. Native American tribes send their young men on a vision quest out in the desert, ancient Spartans sent their young men to goji, which is sort of like a boot camp. For our Western modern society, college is an aspirational rite of passage. In our increasingly fractured society, it’s one of the few aspirations across all political, cultural, geographic divides.

Megan, how is college forming our youth? What is that experience really like? In particular, because you’re a professor of philosophy, what’s the role of philosophy in that process of formation? Pull all of this together for us.

MEGHAN SULLIVAN:  I’ll start with a little bit of unnecessary autobiography. I’m redoing my house right now. It is a catastrophe. I have painters and floor installation contractors in my house at all hours of the day.

CURTIS CHANG: Does this sound like a familiar experience, David?

MEGHAN SULLIVAN:  There’s no surface in my house right now that’s not covered in glue.

DAVID FRENCH: I need a trigger warning, Meghan.

MEGHAN SULLIVAN: David, so you can empathize with this. If you are doing a huge project like transforming your house, you have all of these individual people with whom you contract, or maybe one major contractor that manages all the workers.  You have an expectation: I’m going to give X amount of money, a considerable sum of money — .a sum of money that rivals college tuition — to these contractors. In return, I predict I’m going to get a floor by Labor Day. If the floor is not exactly what I expected, I’m going to fight with the contractor about it and haggle about the price.

It’s all very transactional. Everybody knows what’s meant to happen at the end. It’s very controlled. We all know how we are treating each other, which is primarily as floor delivery person and financier of floor company. That’s how the arrangement for this big project works.

Some folks like to think of higher education in those kinds of transactional terms. The college professors are the floor installers, your kid is the house, and you’re the financier who haggles over the best deal.  Four years later, you’re hopefully going to get a predictable outcome for this young person as a result of your investment. And since college is so expensive, like doing a major home renovation, a smart consumer should understand how this is going to get paid for and what’s going to happen when you undertake it.

However, a college education is not merely transactional in that way.  That’s why this weekend feels so sacred for so many families, low income and high income families alike.  There’s an economy in higher education, but it’s not a simple transactional economy.

It’s much more of what I would think of – as a philosopher – as a gift economy.

I had the privilege of putting my youngest brother through college at Brown. He got a generous financial aid package, but I paid a lot more than my down payment on my house for that kid’s education. Here are some things that make it like providing for Connor’s education pretty different than doing a big home renovation.

First, I have a pretty decent prediction about what my floor is going to look like at the end of this. When you put your beloved kid into college, young people are highly volatile, changing, forming people. I know a lot of parents who are incredibly proud of the 22- or 23-year-old that graduates, but almost nobody can predict exactly what’s going to happen to that young person in the four years of college.

It’s much more dictated by their calling and experiences and the person that they’re becoming during that period. If you think you’re paying money to get a certain kind of product out at the end of it, you have really misunderstood your kid.  

That’s just really not how education works.

[This excerpt was lightly edited for clarity.]

HOSTS: Curtis Chang and David French

PRODUCER: Kris Carter

The Good Faith podcast comes out every Saturday on The Dispatch. Listen and subscribe here or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Curtis Chang is the founder of Redeeming Babel.

Image Credit: Photo by Robert Bye on Unsplash

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