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Great educations

From almost the moment we first opened our eyes, most of us have seen college admittance as the ultimate goal. We ticked enough boxes in high school and earned our places at Princeton. Across America and the world, the story is often the same. A university degree has become a prerequisite for any “successful life.” Without it, we are told, a secure future is impossible and happiness unlikely. But, is this education really our best chance at success? Princeton purports to offer a full, well-rounded education. We read the books, finish the problem sets, take the exams and then, having been “taught to think,” we are shoveled out into various careers, better equipped to contribute in any field.

Or so we’re told.


For scientists and engineers, it’s not difficult to see why four years spent increasing knowledge and fine-tuning ability will be valuable in future years. I want an experienced surgeon to operate on my brain and a competent engineer to build my house. In these fields, time and repetition are crucial methods of solidifying expertise and allowing innovation. For humanities majors, however, the education offered is not so obviously relevant to our future contributions to society. “Middlemarch,” “War and Peace” and “On Liberty” and everything in between are consistently recognized as masterpieces and do expand our intellectual horizons; but they probably don’t contribute much practical use.

We need educations that match professions and that allow us to maximize our lifetime potential. America, like other parts of the West, has been too quick to equate these goals with increased college-attendance rates and has stunted the growth rate of many students as a result. When we leave high school, we have reasonably well-developed mathematical abilities and writing abilities; so, why not just go straight to work? Many employers tell us that most skills will be learned “on the job,” and that, for example, English majors can easily transform into bankers. Is the 22-year-old college graduate really much better placed to perform than their similarly raw, motivated and intelligent 18-year-old self? And when policemen in Plano, Texas are required to hold four-year college degrees, surely this hints that the system is broken. For all the value that Tolstoy, Eliot and Mill give us, it’s difficult to see how they can ever affect the competence and abilities of people in such professions. There is too much emphasis on college as the required pinnacle of learning; instead, vocational schools and alternative educations should be encouraged and expanded. Forcing job applicants to simply tick irrelevant educational boxes is wasteful: From fireman to banker, many jobs perhaps don’t require the level of training that society has come to demand.

Attending university also adds other pressures that are not beneficial to society as a whole. Having been given an education so expensive and long, college students may feel compelled to seek high-paid, fast-paced, ego-caressing jobs that benefit the individual, but ignore most of the rest of our communities. While departments at Princeton might ostensibly encourage us to give in the service of all nations, is the University really doing enough? Part of the attraction of any institution like Princeton is the protective bubble it offers its inmates, but perhaps the University should do more to force us to venture out from behind the high walls, to see the real world and understand why it should be our goal to improve it. Everything from global seminars to study abroad and events organized by the Student Volunteers Council do something to tackle this issue; but, Princeton should encourage even more of its population to act.

My argument is not that we should all now drop out of university. Instead, I want to challenge the popular view that university is necessary for our collective, long-term success and advancement. Unfortunately, our society currently demands that we acquire college degrees as one more trophy on the road to entering the working world. As Louis Menand proposed in the June 6 issue of The New Yorker, college may have become nothing more than an “four-year intelligence test,” taken as the final exam before job applications are due. At the very least, he noted that college has become necessary if only to “get everyone on the same page [with] mainstream norms of reason and taste.” Neither of these theories is particularly reassuring: In terms of both time and money, Princeton and similar schools are expensive ways to distinguish ourselves from others and align our different opinions and ideas. Perhaps university should not always be the best use of these two valuable commodities. Students at Princeton should recognize this problem, and when we are finally unleashed on the world, fix it.

Philip Mooney is a freshman from Belfast, Northern Ireland. He can be reached at