The internet is abuzz, rightly, with the news that Starbucks will provide free college education to many of its workers. Starbucks baristas will be able to get degrees from Arizona State University, and then leave, if they want to. This is a great move for Starbucks–it will improve its brand, its attractiveness to job applicants, its retention.
It also points to the future of the university.
The problem with college education as it is currently conceived goes deeper than rising tuition rates and lowering employment prospects. The problem is whether we are not wasting not only trillions of dollars, but zillions of productive man-hours of young people to give them essentially four-year paid vacations. The problem is whether college truly imparts a valuable increase in human capital, or is merely a signaling device. In turn, the problem is whether college does not worsen our social divide by merely legitimizing already-existing class hierarchies–including through its hedonism.
This is not how we’ve always conceived of a university education. Already shortly after World War II, the greatest education scientist and thinker of the 20th century, Dr. Maria Montessori, pointed to the Medieval conception of the university–and, after all, the Medievals invented the university–as having lessons for us.
In particular, she pointed to two important facets of the Medieval university which we have lost.
First, in Medieval universities, there were no examinations, except at the end of the course of study to earn the degree. In other words, the “college” life was not this bizarre cycle of procrastinating-then-cramming, procrastinating-then-cramming, all with the purely instrumental goal of earning a parchment, which itself is only seen as a gateway to economic security. “The common object of the students has become that of evading work as much as possible,” Dr. Montessori drily notes of the typical undergraduate life. Rather, Medieval students and professors were genuinely interested in the life of ideas and in deepening their own culture. This bears a striking likeness to one of the buzzwords of the most innovative higher education institutions, namely “competency-based learning,” whereby degrees or credits are not earned on the basis of hours sat on a chair, but rather, on the student’s own capacities. If you can learn everything needed to get a degree X in two semesters instead of eight, you can do it.
Second, in Medieval universities, students were expected to earn their keep. Tuition was typically free, but students were typically expected to take care of their own living expenses. This is actually very important, since a model of the university that keeps students who, biologically and psychologically (and legally) speaking, are or ought to be adults, in an extended adolescence, with deleterious consequences. Study, and the students, are disconnected from work and the real world. Because students are typically on the parental dole, the parents tend to demand a return on their investment in the form of a marketable degree. More generally, self-reliance is simply not seen as valuable, even though growth in self-reliance specifically is, or ought to be, the marker of entry into adulthood, and in this key respect the four-year college retards, rather than encourages, the progress of the students. ”[L]ife is not all receptiveness; rather it is an active and expansive energy, which endeavors to realize its own creation on an external environment. In other words, merely to study is not to live, but to live is the most essential condition in order to be able to study,” she writes.
Working alongside their degree might lengthen the course of study for students, Dr. Montessori allows (then again, if she’d seen the requirements of the typical BA at a typical state school…). But, with absolute clarity especially for the time, she realizes that, anyway, in the modern world and in a modern economy, studying must be the work of a lifetime. Since for the one who embarks on the path of higher education, they are–or ought to be–seekers of culture, they will realize that they must learn all through their life, and that the undergraduate “cycle” is merely the beginning of the quest.
In other words, Starbucks points to the future. No, not all of us may work as baristas for the first four years after high schools. But it’s not just Starbucks who can do what Starbucks is doing. Probably in the future employers like, say, Google and GE and the military (and maybe even venture capitalists, like the Thiel Fellowship) would actively recruit talented high school seniors and offer them a real job with real responsibility, alongside sponsorship for a degree.
Then maybe we would have a nation of 19-year-old adults instead of twentysomething adolescents.