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College: the best seven years of your life?

Uploaded: Feb 29, 2012
Among the various incendiary claims that ignited a particularly conflagratory week on the campaign trail, was one that bears upon post-secondary education in these United States. I'm interested in your thoughts on it, whether based on your personal experiences, or those of others (as in: "I have a friend who's got a rash?").

The thrice-degreed (BA, MBA, JD) Senator Santorum claimed this week that "62% of kids who enter college with a faith commitment leave without it." On its face, that appears to be a rather dire indictment of the university experience – especially among those whose impressions of college come from the line of movies that starts with Animal House (Faber College motto: Knowledge is Good) and runs through the various Van Wilder epics. Placing naturally curious, hormonal youngsters in close proximity without benefit of much supervision seems likely to provoke extra-curriculars that might lead them astray.

While the Senator did not offer source material for his claim, a strikingly similar statistic may be found in a respectable academic journal, to wit: "The assumption that the religious involvement of

young people diminishes when they attend college is of course true: 64 percent of those currently enrolled in a traditional four-year institution have curbed their attendance habits."

Fortunately for we who finance college educations (if not for the candidate), the next sentence of that article reads as follows: "Yet, 76 percent of those who never enrolled in college report a decline in religious service attendance."

Mr. Santorum further offered the opinion that the likely culprit was "indoctrination by some liberal college professor." I will set aside the educator's fond aspiration that the perspectives s/he purveys occupy some fraction of student consciousness beyond the next exam – or even survive the class bell – leavened as it must be with the oft-demonstrated fact that sometimes, it does neither. I do end my courses by expressing to students the hope that maybe the world looks a little different now, than it did at the outset of our time together. But my stuff is usually pretty vocational, and its persistence will depend on reinforcement by informing business decisions with remembered elements of the curriculum.

I recall that my own undergraduate education taught me how to think about problems in organized, rational ways that have been useful in my life. I trend a bit towards the Keynesian in that regard, as did most of my Profs in the Michigan Econ department, but I've read enough Friedman to appreciate the monetarist perspective. And I learned other process skills in unlikely places, like my Accounting Prof who, in 1972, predicted the eventual demise of General Motors and convinced me of the wisdom in adopting the long view.

Indoctrination, though, goes more to substance than process. It tells you what to believe, not how to decide what to believe. I don't think college does that; I simply do not recall any teacher, at any level, who had that effect.

In terms of values (as the candidate clearly intended), and life philosophy, I believe mine were formed much more by earlier training, and by later experience. Early-on, I was encouraged to "fight fiercely" in general, to listen to my conscience and to revere life. Those values survived my education. And later, life taught me how remarkably fortunate I have been, that I should not take it for granted or assume it arose out of any special merit I might enjoy, and that there's a place for all that Economics I had learned – but it's not every place.

What about you – how did college affect you? Were you directed, left or right, by your learnings there? Were there particular Profs or mentors who changed the course of your life – or how you think about life? Were there times you were punished academically for an alternative view with which the academic authorities disagreed? Any courses, or tributes, or gripes you've been nurturing, and would be willing to share?

BTW, the article referred-to above ought to have relieved the Senator's concerns, as follows: "The assumption that a college education is the reason for such a decline gathers little support. The results remain the same even when we employ multiple regression models to account for other factors that might explain the college-religion relationship (such as age, marriage, drinking habits, and sexual behavior, to name a few). Simply put: Higher education is not the enemy of religiosity."


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Posted by CDSI Information, a resident of another community,
on Feb 29, 2012 at 3:27 pm

Dear Editor and Tom,

Absolutely great column!

College and University was the best 12+ years of my life and I would recommend such education to all wanting to know the joy of knowledge. Considering commentary by Mr. Santorum does not remove the exceptional boost university study and stimulus give one's mind and soul.

I have spent my life learning including all the diversity of faiths simply because college and university started that hunger for knowledge and perspective.



Posted by Dirk, a resident of Alamo,
on Feb 29, 2012 at 5:21 pm

I'm afraid that college came much too late to have any influence on my religious views. Clearly those kids that Santorum et al. worry about, unlike me, are the product of many years of indoctrination by their parents and churches , and I think he is right, or at least I hope he is, that the opportunity to think for themselves about these things and to be exposed to different points of view, might cause them to have doubts about some of what they learned in Sunday school.

I find your assurance, Tom, that higher education is not an enemy of "religiosity" (did you really mean that?) somewhat disappointing and really hard to believe. Certainly many studies have shown a strong inverse relationship between education level and religious belief.

Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Danville,
on Feb 29, 2012 at 7:04 pm

Tom Cushing is a registered user.

That conclusion is from the article, Dirk -- basic premise seems to be that the factors that affect church attendance are many and relate to matters other than college attendance, per se. I am certain that there are ways to massage those data by field of instruction, level, achievement, etc. Your conclusion (which is not to say 'god' or 'the devil') may be in those details. ;-)

I think it's a mistake to equate church membership and attendance with devout adherence to any particular premise of the specific religious institution. There is a great deal of community in churches, for example, and there is also values training and reinforcement that is pretty good stuff -- and that may/may not require acceptance of the entire liturgy. Lots of folks find things of value within church communities without subscribing to the whole shebang. I have friends, for example, who advocate the "take what you need" theory.

Finally, there are some churches that emphasize the 'seeking' aspects of spirituality, and others who prefer to prescribe the path for their members. I've noticed that many science professionals seem to be comfortable with the former approach.

Posted by underdog, a resident of another community,
on Feb 29, 2012 at 8:36 pm

being in school during viet nam was quite different perhaps than in any other era. the war was ever-present and it made people, students, professors, community more connected, more concerned for each other. unity in the face of adversity. people turned to those lifelines that helped them cope and religion, or things of a spiritual nature, was definitely one. this "religiosity", however, was most definitely focused on love not hate, inclusion and not exclusion, peace, not war. it did not have a "brand" and did not target or preach against people (our brothers and sisters). i studied the bible as literature, had a nun as a lit professor (in a secular school), she was cool, and it was part of the learning process that brought some focus to religion for me. conditions have changed, we've moved on from that era. it may be more subtle, but i think every generation experiences some form of bonding from an external threat or condition where school provides an opportunity to connect and reflect on what we mean to each other as a community and in relation to the world. religious enlightenment and/or spirituality can only be described in a qualitative sense and perhaps that is the fallacy in ascribing some failing measure like attendance or behavior to it as if it were a market commodity. the most important aspects of education and religion are having an open mind and an open heart. i can only say that this was my generations experience and i've seen it in those that followed.

Posted by Mary, a resident of Danville,
on Mar 1, 2012 at 6:01 am

This is the second week in a row that this author has felt the need to sling arrows at Republicans, morals, church and people of faith. Clearly he is wrestling with demons of his own and fears what he may not understand. I actually said a prayer for you in church on Sunday, Tom. I hope many others will do the same. You seem to need it now.

Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Danville,
on Mar 1, 2012 at 8:06 am

Thanks, Mary.

While I don't think you read this week's epistle as I intended it, I appreciate your good wishes. Would you be willing to leave it up to the Deity to decide where I need the most help?

Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Danville,
on Mar 1, 2012 at 9:07 am

Also @ Mary:

I've been thinking some more about your comment, and its apparent equation of things Republican and Values-based. I'd considered writing about that topic next week, but now I won't have-to.

That topic would be that I do not think the Dems are going to concede the "Values" issues to the GOP this year. Mr. Obama so signaled in his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast earlier this month. Text is here: Web Link

As reported in the Washington Post: "he laid out a simple scriptural grounding for his policies: caring for the least of these, being one?s brother?s keeper, demanding much of those to whom much has been given. He went on at length about a meeting with evangelical icon Billy Graham." He also forcefully expressed those sentiments in a speech to the UAW convention a few days ago that has gone viral on facebook: Web Link

There is a spectrum on opinion on Values, just like there is on any other issue. The Dems have concluded that the GOP Hopefuls have staked their claims so far to the Right on those issues, that they can appeal to the great American moderate, middle-ground there, too. I believe they're correct in that assessment.

Both Parties are appealing to Values, in very different ways.

Posted by C. R. Mudgeon, a resident of Danville,
on Mar 1, 2012 at 9:39 am

I think I agree for teh most part with Tom Cushing's assertion that higher education shouldn't be blamed for reducing "religiosity" (I know what you mean, even if it's not in the dictionary. :-) )

I think it IS fair to conclude that college professors are, on average, more liberal and/or left-leaning than the population at large, especially the professors of non-technical subjects. And one might speculate that this correlates with some reduced level of "religiosity" amongst these professors (again compared to the population at large).

But, I think that the far bigger factor is just timing and/or life-stage differences.

Just speaking from my own experience (back in the Dark Ages), and from that of my grown kids:

- As kids grow older, many of the ones who attended church (of whatever religion) stop going as regularly. They may stay active in their parents' church through middle school and even high schoool, if it has an active youth program that many of their friends/peers go to. But once at college, this seems to end for most. Even as young working adults, and even young married couples, church attendence seems to be a low priority. In many cases, it is the birth of their own kids that brings younger adults back into church attendence. This is not to say that college kids or young adults have lost their faith (although perhaps in some cases they question it more). It may just mean that they don't feel the need to attend organized worship services (at least not until they have kids of their own).

Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Danville,
on Mar 1, 2012 at 10:40 am

@ CR: well, you and Dirk agree on at least one thing -- that I wrote that last paragraph that includes the term "religiosity." Who sez the DX Forum doesn't bring folks together? I can't take credit for that word or that paragraph -- they both came from the article, itself. I Will take the blame for "conflagratory," which I thought I was making-up, but someone else got to it first.

The point of the article was that the drop-off in r-word is even greater among non-college youts -- 76% to 64%, which reinforces your point about stage-of-life factors. That's right on the money. But I also think "Saturday night" has more to lowered attendance at Sunday services than those tweedy "liberal professors" do.

Posted by Dirk, a resident of Alamo,
on Mar 1, 2012 at 1:37 pm

"Religiosity" is a real word and is in the dictionary (online Merriam-Webster):

Definition of RELIGIOSE
: religious; especially : excessively, obtrusively, or sentimentally religious
â?? re·li·gi·os·i·ty noun <----

I hope you know that I truly admire you, Tom.

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