The professor in the home

Every month, money flies from my checking account to the education savings accounts of my children, because I don’t want them to become hobos. This is one way I allay my fear the world will eat them up. It’s a mark of a good parent to worry over where—and whether—his child will go to college, isn’t it?

I need to confess a profoundly un-American heresy: I question what my children will get for the money. I don’t question the value of education (though we make it a panacea for deeper ills of the soul); I doubt the capacity of most educational institutions to impart much beyond what one could obtain with, as the protagonist in Good Will Hunting notes, “a dollar-fifty in late charges at the public library.”

I know there are teachers who can help a student get far more out of Dracula, say, than he might acquire on his own. They can cultivate in him a healthy awareness of the various psycho-sexual literary analytical clubs with which the text has been bludgeoned for decades, for example, or even help him challenge dominant beliefs about what Dracula, and monster literature more broadly, means to us culturally. There are teachers like that; I’ve seen them in action, and they are a heartening, humbling species to behold.

The practical reality, however, is that most educational institutions have no interest in rewarding excellent teachers, or even understanding which of their teachers are truly excellent. They are in the business of slinging feed to cattle. As a consequence, their faculties share no intelligible common convictions, no canon, no sense of responsibility to raise humane citizens. The surest way to get sideways with many of them, in fact, is to posit definitions of “canon,” “humane,” or “citizen.” Heck, just try to define “man” and “woman,” and watch what happens.

Many higher education professionals have nothing coherent to say about what we are, and so the notion that whatever we are might be called to something greater and higher than ourselves, that denying our appetites might be essential to this thing called “virtue,” that there is even such a thing as virtue, rather than a patriarchal phallocentric Western capitalist construct designed for purposes of oppression, and that this virtue is worthy of pursuit and discipleship and discomfort—well, talk like that will get you disinvited from the faculty mixer.

I’m saving money for my children’s “higher education,” and the truth is that it seems shot through with holes. It is an interesting collection of answers to the wrong questions. It is not what I hope for my children, which is cultivation of wisdom, virtue, a spirit of open inquiry, and intellectual rigor.

Lately it’s occurred to me, however, that I’ve been thinking about this wrongly. I’m tempted—many of us are tempted—to think of higher education as something that happens out there, conducted by other people, when our children are older. The reality is, however, that the most important part of it is happening right now, with we parents, every day.

Here’s the thing: I’ve met humble, brilliant kids with Ivy League degrees, and I’ve met clever, insufferable fools with Ivy League degrees. I’ve met thoroughgoing dunces passing time as college students, and in the same classroom, thoughtful world-changers. I know autodidacts who make their livings with their hands, who have no need of college degrees, but whose minds are more unfettered and insightful than that of many a philosophy professor. And of course I know plenty of people who make their livings with their hands and who have no interest in thinking at all.

The chief determinant of a young person’s educational success, in other words, is not the credentialing of the professoriate. It’s the discernment and self-discipline he possesses when he reaches them. Good teachers matter, to be sure. We should find them, and reward them, and send our children to them. But our children must have hearts that seek wisdom. Fools tend to draw fools; the wise tend to draw the discerning. My kids will gravitate to the teachers I have prepared them to learn from.

Which puts me in a pretty spot, now that I think about it—striving to incline their hearts toward wisdom, yet feeling every day like a fool not up to the task. It would be so much easier to keep socking away money every month, and trust someone else to figure it out. But that’s not an option, is it?


  1. MHJ

    Your kids will get pieces of paper that are credentials or tickets to somewhere near the front of the line, depending on where it’s from, and maybe build some useful contacts. Education? Unless it’s in engineering or the hard sciences, only if the kids are motivated enough to swim against the tide of sub-mediocrity that will try to engulf them. To use your example, they’ll get more out of Dracula plus the Cliffs Notes than they will in the typical English Lit class these days.

  2. Robert Arvanitis

    Before we even get to the value of a college degree, or the exquisite hierarchy of prestige within, even before we discuss the nominal cost, understand this — the more you save, the higher the price.
    That’s correct. A percent of income and an even higher percent of savings. And never admit your children’s grandparents are alive, or the bursars will come sniffing around there too, for money.
    For most institutions, tuition is only a fraction of total revenue from the endowment. Some call the typical Ivy “a hedge fund with a school incidentally attached.”
    So the value equation has two variables – what you get and what it costs you.
    While you pursue the “get,” don’t forget to minimize the “cost” side

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  4. R.C.

    In all of the U.S., there are, what, three or four colleges one can send a child to as an undergraduate, and not have them receive more leftist indoctrination than they do valuable education?

    I mean, there’s Hillsdale. There’re Belmont Abbey and Franciscan of Steubenville. Not sure if there are any others, really.

    You can’t homeschool a university degree; and at that age it’s time a kid paid his own rent in one way or another and had some distance from dear ol’ Mom and Dad. But there must be some kind of option that produces scholarship and connections without costing the parents a quarter mil and their kid’s soul.

    And ideally, one that doesn’t pay a single red cent into the salary of some tenured aging hippie radical.

  5. werewife

    A pleasure to read this! Instapundit sent me, and I shall return. But a word from one who’s been there: Sometimes you can overcome nature and a destructive cultural milieu, and sometimes you can’t. My son has defied two decades of effort to turn him away from momentary pleasure and toward wisdom. At some point all you can do is allow that you’ve done your best, and hope it’s enough. And of course, love them regardless.

  6. Post

    MHJ — You’re touching on something I struggle with, which is the reality that colleges have become, in many cases, very high-priced selection mechanisms whose primary purpose is to help companies reduce hiring risks (either of hiring someone incapable of sustained, diligent effort, or simply of being sued for discrimination).

  7. Post

    Robert A., much as it goes against my instinct to pay my (our) own way(s), I know your advice is correct. I wonder if someone has worked up some sort of “tax” calculator, to help a family assess how much each dollar saved toward college is in effect erased by a concomitant increase in tuition price. Do you think it’s close to 100%?

  8. Post

    R.C., I may be naive, but I think the options for young people to find professors who won’t seek to indoctrinate them (at least with Leftist ideas) are better than they have been in decades, thanks to the good work of organizations like the Institute for Humane Studies. The deeper problem, from my point of view, is first, that these professors are scattered, and second, that most of them have no more interest in touching on concepts of virtue, mentoring, and (dare I say it?) discipleship than their less ideologically sound colleagues. All of which may be my wordy, roundabout way of ultimately agreeing with you.

  9. Post

    Werewife, first, thanks for visiting — I hope you’ll return. Second, I fear you’re right. I want to believe I can get everything just right, and then my kids will be okay. But the truth is that I won’t get everything right, and even if I do, they ultimately make their own choices. I suppose all any of us parents can do is strive our hardest and then pray them as close to heaven as our prayers allow.

  10. Post

    Collin — yes, curiosity. I imagine there are other essentials, and I suspect smarter, wiser people than me have wrestled with this. I’d be interested in people’s recommendations regarding the virtues and habits we want to cultivate in our children, in order to prepare them to be educated/wizened.

  11. Robert Arvanitis

    Your results, as they say, may vary, but here are two good references:

    The Journal article in particular notes that the student’s junior year in high school is critical, as it sets the base for “aid.” So defer income, strip assets etc.
    And note that it’s not “aid,” but just a discount from an inflated sticker price. (Imagine we were buying a car to see how skewed the system really is.)

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  13. Marc V

    Wow, an Instapundit link – quite a Christmas gift.
    I’m ashamed to say I have not done a good job saving for my retirement, let alone something called a “college fund” for the young’uns. We homeschool them, and some are better than others at applying themselves in spite of Mom’s attention. My oldest has no “cultivation of wisdom, virtue, a spirit of open inquiry, and intellectual rigor”, so I’m trying to steer him to do something useful with his hands. For now it’s type on Facebook, text and scream into a microphone – don’t know if those are skills someone will pay him a salary.

  14. Post

    Robert — a belated thanks for the info. Looks like a writing sabbatical in a monastery might be a better financial decision than I first thought.

  15. Post

    Have you thought about apprenticeship of some sort? The whole system is geared against it (Child labor! Welding won’t help him with college admissions! How will he have time for sports?!? What about the legal liability for business that takes him in?!?), but it’s something I’ve thought more and more about. I have one who is artistically inclined, and another who likes to work with his hands. I can only imagine what traditional college will do to crush those inclinations (if the digital devices don’t do it first). I wonder if there is some organization that helps match would-be apprentices with mentors. It would probably be worth more to the people of a state than the obscene subsidies that go to state schools every year to churn out kids with degrees in marketing, phys. ed., journalism, etc.

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