Packing up the car and taking a kid to college is always hard. Mom holds back tears and worries about the health of her “baby.” Dad checks and rechecks to make sure Johnny has what he needs and knows who to contact if he doesn’t. And then the goodbyes are said and Johnny is left in the hands of his professors whose duty it is to transform him into a smart, capable adult.
Such is the approach many parents take to college these days. In fact, so much apparently rests on the type of education a child receives in college, that parents go great lengths to give their children a leg up, even going so far as to enroll them in $16,000 College Application Boot Camps.
But let’s be honest: most of us don’t have that kind of cash to throw at such things. How then can the average American parent ensure their child has a chance to compete in the college market and succeed? How can any parent ensure that his or her child is ready to wrestle with ideas and come out on the other side a capable, well-rounded adult?
The answers to those questions were once answered by Robert Maynard Hutchins, the president of The University of Chicago from the late 1920s to the early 1950s. In a June 1929 convocation address, Hutchins addressed the flawed views of education which afflict many American parents. According to Hutchins, many parents leave all the work of training a child up to the “expert” educators:
“[M]any people seem to have the notion that the processes of education are simple and easy, that the student comes to college a sort of plastic mass to be molded by the teacher in whatever likeness he will. It is for this reason that parents have sometimes felt they could solve their domestic problems by turning them over to the educator. In preparatory school work... I have observed this phenomenon time and time again. A lady once presented to my headmaster her son, nineteen years old, saying, ‘He has been terribly spoiled. He has never done any work. I didn’t like to push him. He was so frail. Now you take him, and make a man of him, and interest him in his studies.’ And my headmaster replied substantially in the words of Tennyson, ‘Late, late, too late, ye cannot enter now!’ It is sad but true that at eighteen or nineteen or upon graduation from high school it is too late to take a boy and make a man of him and interest him in his studies. He has solidified, too often in more ways than one. But even if it were possible physiologically and psychologically, the college should not attempt the job. Because of its size, because its funds were given to it for another purpose, it can only to a very limited degree spend its time and money in supervising a student’s conduct, in regulating his daily habits, in forcing him to improve his mind and body against his will. The college is there, with all its opportunities. Broadly speaking, he may take it or leave it.”
This thinking, Hutchins goes on to imply, is deeply flawed, for it ignores a key component crucial to the formation of a child:
“And what this comes down to is that if a man hasn’t character, if he hasn’t the germs of intellectual interest, if he doesn’t care to amount to anything, the college can’t give him a character, or intellectual interest, or make him amount to anything. It may complete the task. It is too late to begin it.”
In the long run, we can spend a fortune prepping our children to write the perfect college application, achieve the perfect academic record, and attain the perfect slate of extracurricular activities in order to get our children into an institution which will give them perfect educators and perfect academic credentials. But unless we as parents take them under our wings and instill character and a love of learning from an early age, will all these maneuvers simply cause our money and children’s lives to go up in smoke?
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Annie Holmquist is the editor of Intellectual Takeout. When not writing or editing, she enjoys reading, gardening, and time with family and friends.