“For what is a man profited, if he shall gain
the whole world, and lose his own soul?
or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”

—Matthew 16:26

Our Lord taught us all about bad bargains.  To lose your own soul and to receive in exchange that mere pittance called “the whole world” should be counted as one of those bad bargains.  So what sense does it make to lose your own soul, and to pay out $35K per year over the course of four years for the privilege?  Like the harlot in Ezekiel (16:41), we have got a bad arrangement completely backward, and not in a way that really improves anything.

Spiritually speaking, mainstream college is not worth it.  We should always remember that the mainstream frequently goes right over the falls.  So the odds really are against you, Charlotte Simmons, and to be attracted to that gaudy-and-prestigious-on-the-outside life indicates part of the problem.  The game might not be worth the candle, and moreover, moths fly into it.

The moral problem of the four-year drunken debauch is not the only concern out there.  We also have the problem of the traditional Christian who is a serious and ambitious student.  This starry-eyed grad student decides that if he gets his M.A. at Princeton, moves on to Harvard Law, and then finishes up with something impressive-sounding at Oxford, that would be something.  With all those credentials, he will be in a position to make a real dent in the world of academia.  That’s the theory, anyway.  But what are the odds of actually being able to do this, as opposed to the odds of, say, going native somewhere in the process?  Serious students often fail to recognize that the intellect is capable of its own peculiar debaucheries, of which high-end political correctness is but one lurid example.

Of course, a diploma can open doors.  A number of employers require a degree, and a number of influential employers require a particular kind of sheepskin.  No need to mention them by name, but such résumé-boosters rhyme with Yarvard and Hale.  If you have such a degree in hand, and if you still have an intact soul in the other, you may really be ready to make that aforementioned dent.  But again, what are the odds of this happening?

In some ways, it really is like playing the lottery, but with this difference: Instead of costing a dollar, each ticket is 140K.  You might really win big, but you are virtually certain to lose big.  And then when you don’t win big, you can reflect on the seven or eight ski boats you could have bought instead of that major in communications.  The odds of getting a door-opening degree while retaining a robust affection for the permanent things are about the same as the odds of winning Powerball.  It is great when it happens, but it seldom does.

This is looking at the outcome after it has come out.  But parents and students have to make their college decisions before anything has happened, before freshman year.  If we make no pretense to clairvoyance, what are we supposed to do?

One of the things I do as a pastor is meet with all graduating high-school seniors in our church.  I talk to them about their plans, where they are going and why.  I talk to them about their circle of friends—who will they run with?  I give each of them a copy of Alex Chediak’s Thriving at College.  I talk to them about their spiritual life.  One of the crucial things is to have a faithful church close by their college, because college students desperately need a connection to a real community of normal people.  The dorm doesn’t count.

More broadly speaking, I tell them that our system of higher education has fallen from a great height, and no longer represents what a classical liberal-arts education in the Christian tradition was designed to provide, and could still provide if it were being done right.  I am talking about the travesty of the liberal arts as they currently are, not as they should be.

The university should not be a place where you train for “a job.”  A university education was designed to help us understand life, not how to make a living.  But having said that, the status quo of higher education can be broken down into two categories, and in this comparison vocational training actually comes out ahead.  Vo-tech training—fine in itself, but not what college really should be—is closer to the kingdom than the depths to which education in the humanities has descended.  Publicans and harlots go into the kingdom before the chief priests and elders.

There are majors where most of what you learn is true, and other majors where most of what you learn is false.  A student who majors in mechanical engineering will learn mostly what is true.  A student who majors in English lit will learn mostly what is false.  This is not why we cannot have nice things.  It is why we have mountains of nice things that nobody understands.

In other words, the pragmatic majors are dominated by truth (as far as it goes), and the prestige majors are largely governed by lies.  For those students called to the world of STEM, many options are available, as are many creative ways to keep the costs down.  A study plan such as this is either worth it, or can be jiggered to be worth it.

The trouble arises when someone is gifted in and attracted to the world of arts and letters.  This is where the corruption of the modern university runs deepest—although in some cases the standards of erudition have been kept high.  In other words, they graduate competent sophists.  Nevertheless, the gangrene of unbelief runs through the whole, and it really is not wise to pay them monster dollars so that they might assiduously cultivate the damnation of your daughter.  So I strongly encourage most college-bound students in this category to consider the conservative Christian liberal-arts colleges that have been formed in response to the corruption of higher education.  They vary in how successful they are at fighting that corruption, but they are at least engaged in trying to fight it.

Somebody somewhere wins the lottery.  Occasionally, a student is actually called and equipped to get a doctorate from Cambridge.  He will have the right kind of bright in his eyes, and the right kind of carelessness in his demeanor.  Chesterton noted this truth about courage, a truth that is applicable here: “The paradox of courage is that a man must be a little careless of his life even in order to keep it.”  Like surly neighborhood dogs, the progressive academic establishment can smell fear.  If you are in their system carefully ticking off boxes on your way to your graduation, they have you in their grasp.  You are negotiating with them for your degree, and you are in the position of a suppliant.  And incidentally, by “progressive academic establishment,” I would include many ostensibly Christian colleges that have been around for more than a century.  In the established academic world, there is no faithful stance that is not foundationally adversarial.

I once had dinner with a very well-known and open conservative who taught at a prestigious college.  A colleague of mine asked him for advice based on what his approach had been.  Do you go in with guns blazing, flying the Jolly Roger, or do you keep your head down, nervously counting the days until tenure arrives?  He argued for the open approach so that the faculty and administration know what they are dealing with.  He said that if you keep your head down, they will still find out about you somewhere, somehow—someone saw your car parked at a church that one time.  They will still get you, and when they do, they will have all kinds of plausible deniability: “We can’t have washed him out because he was a Christian.  Nobody knew he was a Christian!”  And if you spend the requisite years whispering quietly until tenure, you might easily find out, when you finally are in a position to say something, that you have no voice.

With the higher-ed lottery, the odds of winning are poor, and the odds of losing are good.  Some play to win.  But the stark reality is that some actually have their eye on the prospect of losing, which is to say that they have redefined losing as winning.  You can frequently tell when a student who is going in to “make a difference” is actually hoping to find a good excuse to hedge and to trim.  He doesn’t want to make a difference; he wants to be made different.