Editor's note: Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is president emeritus and university professor of public service at George Washington University. He is chairman of the Korn Ferry Higher Education Practice and senior client partner at Korn Ferry International, an executive recruiting firm.
(CNN) -- Over the last several decades, the reasons used to justify acquiring a university education has morphed from the academic to the applied, to the sublime and the ridiculous.
Once characterized as a noble intellectual pursuit -- something one did to gain knowledge and wisdom, contemporary references define college as utilitarian and practical: Without a college degree, one cannot hope to successfully enter the job market. Stay in school and you'll "earn more," as some like to say.
The children of the incumbent middle and upper classes are increasingly the offspring of college graduates and for the most part they follow their parents' lead (especially young women). They understand that to maintain the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed, getting a degree is important both for image and long-term prospects. It is the thing to do, what is expected of the daughters and sons of doctors, lawyers, bankers, teachers, civil servants, etc. There are, of course, a small number of entrepreneurial types (the up-and-coming Steve Jobs and Bill Gates) who forgo college and seek their fortunes in garages. But most people trod a conventional path; they seek to get jobs rather than to be Jobs.
For those aspiring to the middle class -- the struggling working class, immigrants and children of immigrants -- going to college is probably the most important ticket necessary to take them from one stratum up to the next, all part of the passage from labor to management.
I regret that too few students of any of these economic groups attend college in order to stretch their minds or to mature to where critical thinking overcomes impulse. College is the time to embrace the joy of discovery and the world of ideas, passions and relationships.
But the current dour economic climate and the increasing talk of the need for colleges to justify themselves with questions such as, "Does it pay to go to college?" or "What do we get for our tuition dollars?" have thrown everyone a curve ball. Middle class students are frightened. They no longer expect to live as well or better than their parents but rather are treading water to simply keep afloat, accepting jobs that were once felt to be "below their station." PhDs are driving cabs and tending bars.
Lower class students are stunned at the changes afoot. Can it be that earning a college degree, something that takes enormous perseverance, energy and, of course, financial sacrifice is no longer enough to lift one from the daily grind?
What then to do? Perhaps the simple BA degree is not enough. Perhaps a few bells and whistles are needed: a double major; joint BA-MA degree; or a doctorate. For many people, these are viewed as resume enhancers, silver bullets that might just turn the head of a human resources person, getting her to take a second look at a prospect's job application. And, of course, if one doesn't have a job, then earning another degree is a way to fill one's days.
But, earning a livelihood and living a quality life do not always go hand in hand. Yes, everyone needs food and shelter and whenever possible, a little extra spending money. But having a job does not always satisfy the inner cravings or the imagination.
Just take a look at the essays written by folks attending their 40th or 50th class reunions and you'll discover people who have earned decent salaries for many years, were promoted up the ladders of their professions, who provided for the wants of their families in many ways, but who ultimately found their work to be unfulfilling, living lives of "quiet desperation."
When the economy allowed for retirement at the relatively young age of 65, some of these people jumped at the opportunity to change course, to go from boardrooms to ateliers, to move from the service professions to the field of craftsmen, musicians or community volunteers.
Too few jobs satisfy the soul. Higher education should help to address that shortcoming. But for that to happen, we have to learn how to combine the practicality of learning with the joy of exploration. We need to give instruction in Arabic and Mandarin so students can work successfully in the global economy, but we also should encourage learning about the culture and history of the countries where those languages are spoken.
Taking an elective in college used to mean studying something you wanted to learn about but not necessarily major in: the mathematician who took a class in 19th century Russian literature or the French major who studied Biology 101. It is a sad situation that many of today's students do not want to waste course time on something that is not perceived as advancing their careers. They don't care to learn things that won't be on the final exam.
Congress says it wants colleges to measure outcomes, to access what a person learned during their 4-year college education. I don't disagree with the need for accountability -- after all, the cost and price of getting an education is not trivial. I want, however, to be one of the people who writes the questions and decides the correct answers. As Winston Churchill said, "We make a living from what we get. We make a life from what we give."
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Joel Trachtenberg.