‘Where Should I Go to College?’ How to answer that question by asking another question

Mark Edmundson:

Where should you go to college–assuming you’re a high school student and getting ready for this new phase of your life? Where should you encourage your son or daughter to go–assuming that you’re a parent? As a college professor, I get asked the where-to-go question frequently, and I know that all of us teaching in colleges and universities do too. How should one answer? What is the right thing to say to someone deciding on his or her future? For myself, I’m inclined to respond by posing another question.
Are you looking for a corporate city, or are you looking for a scholarly enclave? Neither of these kinds of schools exists in its pure form. To the scholarly enclave, even the most ideal, there will always be a practical, businessy dimension. Somebody’s got to keep the books and pay the bills. And even in the most corporate of colleges, there will be islands of relative scholarly idealism.
Many, if not most, American high school students have already had a taste of the corporate city. These are students and parents who are emerging from the mouth of that great American dragon called the “good high school.” I won’t hide my prejudices: I have a lot of qualms about the good American high school. Most good high schools now look to me like credential factories. They are production centers that kids check in to every day. The motivated, success- oriented students set to work from the moment of arrival, producing something, manufacturing something. And what they produce are credentials. High schools now are credential factories in overdrive.
It doesn’t mean that students don’t have to work to get those credentials: Of course they do. It takes lots of effort, planning, and organization– and it takes some smarts– to get what students, the workers in the high school factory, are out to get. Students feel that they need to get A’s– they need to excel in their courses. They also feel they need to stimulate the goodwill of their teachers and their guidance counselors: Those recommendations are crucial. Students in high school now also need to rack up lots of extracurriculars: They need to do some community service; they need to be president (or, maybe better, treasurer) of a club or two; it’s good as well if they can play at least one varsity sport, or, if they are prone to stumbling over their own feet (as I was in high school), they can at least manage a team or keep the uniforms clean.