In their 1995 book, The Abandoned Generation, higher education leaders Will Willimon and Tom Naylor persuasively argued that student culture on far too many college and university campuses was characterized by vice instead of virtue and specifically, that most students have an anti-intellectual outlook regarding their higher education journeys. Over twenty years later, both research and my own experience confirms that not much has changed.

“They Can’t Make Me Think”

I was recently on the campus of a major research university. Venturing out into the town for a meal, I chose a well-known establishment. Someone in my group pointed out something behind me (pictured here) that unfortunately proves my point. A sign on the booze cooler in the restaurant read, “They can send me to college, but they can’t make me think.” When I first saw it, I was somewhat shocked. Not shocked because the concept was new to me, but because the message was so blatantly and unapologetically trumpeting in this popular restaurant. Indeed, having served as a residence director in college years ago, I had experienced this anti-intellectual culture for myself. Students who build this kind of culture according to Willimon and Naylor, are keen to point out that “we work hard, and we play hard.” The reality, however, is that far too often playing hard is the priority. Every summer, recently graduated high school seniors look forward to delving into the weekly rhythms of partying beginning everything Thursday evening, sobering up sometime on Monday, working through the dreaded coursework and assignments Tuesday, Wednesday, and during the day on Thursday, and starting the cycle over again.

Student Drinking and Intellectual Disengagement

According to an article by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “59.8 percent of full-time college students ages 18 to 22 drank alcohol in the past month; 37.9 percent engaged in binge drinking (5 or more drinks on an occasion); and 12.2 percent engaged in heavy drinking (5 or more drinks on an occasion on 5 or more occasions per month). These rates are higher than those for their non-college attending peers.” Although the pervasiveness of alcohol abuse doesn’t account for the entirety of an anti-intellectual student culture at college, this kind of behavior is often a byproduct of such a culture. Obviously, not all students who are intellectually disengaged are chronic party animals or have a problem with alcohol.

Financial Success

Why then, do students who adopt an anti-intellectual stance to what ought to be their best years of learning choose to go through the rigors of college? Willimon and Naylor’s answer is simple and rings true—because students want the tools that ensure their financial success. I have found that parents are often the ones making this financial argument to their sons and daughters, i.e., the knowledge, skills, network, and prestige gained from a college education are primarily valuable commodities that increase the potential for monetary reward immediately after college and beyond. To be fair, there are many students who come to college well prepared and with healthy motivation to grow as a learner and as an image-bearer of God. In my experience, however, these students and their parents are the exception, not the rule.

Back to the Main Purpose

What then, is the main purpose of a college education? My take, as I’ve said in my book, is simply this: The best of a college education is one where the whole person is developed. That is to say, intellect, character, and sense of God’s calling should be intentionally explored and cultivated. How does this view of college stack up to yours?

Questions to consider:

  • If you are currently in college, what are your main motivations for being there?
  • Up until this point, what have you considered to be the main purpose of a college education?
  • How could you be a better steward of the education you are getting right now?

Go Deeper:

Is “free speech” real or just an illusion in higher education?

Determine how you can best defend your faith in the classroom!

Watch a video on Greg Thornbury’s connection between high education, servant leadership and the next generation!