I think I wrote about this idea on the old v-i, but I can’t remember. Because of the high cost of college, I recently had a conversation about an alternative to going to college, something I wouldn’t mind for my children. My concept is based on the St. Johns College’s approach:
Through close engagement with the works of some of the world’s greatest writers and thinkers—from Homer, Plato, and Euclid to Nietzsche, Einstein, and Woolf—students at St. John’s College grapple with fundamental questions that confront us as human beings. As they participate in lively discussions and throw themselves into the activity of translating, writing, demonstrating, conducting experiments, and analyzing musical compositions, St. John’s students learn to speak articulately, read attentively, reason effectively, and think creatively.
My understanding is that St. John’s College students basically read the Great Books and discuss them in small groups. For the math and science books, they will sometimes replicate older experiments or solve mathematical problems posed in these classic works. Essentially, the approach comes down to reading really good books and then being able to write and discuss them. Now imagine if a St. John’s College graduate (or some well-read person that was a good teacher) started a “school,” where about ten students would read the Great Books, meet to discuss them, write about them, and do occasional project (replicate experiments, solve math problems, etc.). That’s basically my alternative to sending my kids to college. If I was confident in my teaching ability, particularly of these books, I would consider doing this for my kids. Besides this obstacle, here are some other potential problems that come to mind:
- Motivation of the students.
- Securing a qualified instructor. Finding someone that could lead discussions and correct papers on the Great Books may be more difficult than I think. Ideally, the instructor would have read all the books and possess a good understanding of them. Then again, maybe this isn’t essential.
I would have loved to attended St. John’s College, but I felt that way after four years. I’m not sure I would have been motivated or well-prepared as a freshman. The approach I’m advocating works if the students have the minimum level of motivation and capacity to do this approach. Of course, any student attending college has to be motivated to study. However, studying the Great Books may require far more from students, especially Freshmen.
If both these conditions were met–if my children had the motivation and capacity to read, discuss, and write about the Great Books, and I had a qualified instructor, I would be very open to this approach as an alternative to college. But there is another problem that I didn’t mention above:
- Not having a college degree can hurt employment opportunities. The most practical value of a college degree is employment. Regardless if the correlation between a person’s worth as an employee is strongly correlated with having a degree or not, the reality is that a college degree is an essential key that will open doors of opportunity for employment. Those doors will be closed for those without this key.
- Missing the social experience. My kids wouldn’t get the social experience that college provides, meeting with different people with different backgrounds and ideas. This is even more true if my children went away for college.
There are several ways to deal with these issues, though. For the first problem, my kids could study the Great Books and then go to college. I like this approach because hopefully after a few years of reading the Great Books (and working, volunteering, and possibly traveling), my children will have a much clearer idea of about their vocation.
For the second issue, a trip(s) to another country(ies), where my children could live (and possibly work) for a few months, could be a remedy for this. Depending on the costs, I think I’d happily make the exchange.
One last comment. Even though the Great Books route would likely to be cheaper than most colleges, there would still be a cost. How much would it cost to pay for an instructor or tutor? What about the books themselves or any other costs? My sense is that the instructor’s fees would be the largest expense, but it would still be much cheaper than