Michael Carey: Old college test raises education questions

Michael Carey

"Here is your test," said professor Grant, as he handed copies of a quiz to sleepy Ithaca College sophomores. It was barely 8 a.m., a little early for medieval philosophy. Nevertheless, I turned my eyes to Dr. Grant's questions and frowned while reading "Saint Bonaventura, arguing for the knowability of God, distinguished between knowledge by apprehension and knowledge by comprehension. What does he mean?"

I couldn't answer a question like that today but must have in 1964. I passed the course. For reasons beyond my apprehension and comprehension, the quiz wound up in a box of letters I brought home from college and has been there almost 50 years.

My medieval philosophy course came to mind after reading a New York Times piece on young people who conclude higher education is unnecessary and bypass college. These young people, armed with web skills and entrepreneurial aspirations, head directly to high-tech firms in San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Seattle and Boston.

Why take a four-year detour through college when you can start a career at 18?

Good question, much easier to answer when I was young. In the '60s, college was the royal road to opportunity.

It is today too if you intend to enter highly credentialed professions such as law, medicine, teaching and architecture. But if you have tech dreams -- or imagine yourself building a real estate empire -- Bonaventura and the other philosophers on the quiz, Roger Bacon and Thomas Aquinas, won't make you job ready.

As a student, I took liberal arts courses and read the western canon -- Homer to T.S. Eliot. Society expected -- I expected -- extensive reading would intellectually prepare me for a constructive, if unspecified, career.

I didn't realize as a I labored over "The Wasteland" that my reading courses were the perfect preparation for my first adult job -- a bookstore clerk in Boston. The long-haired clerk fresh out of college, earning a hundred dollars a week, understood the customers when they asked for Eliot. (OK, all the customers were not so high-minded. Some requested "The Pimp" by Iceberg Slim or Victorian pornography such as "My Secret Life.")

The bookstore wasn't a destination. It was a place to start in an economy that seemed to offer boundless opportunity. Today opportunity seems to be contracting. Perhaps if you have a plan for making it in high tech, you are smart to buy a Greyhound ticket to San Francisco.

If you don't get that dream job and wind up washing dishes, at least you will be spared the final question on Dr. Grant's quiz. "Aquinas says 'Existence is something other than essence or quiddity, unless perhaps there be something the quiddity of which is its very existence.' What would such be and what its nature?"


Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Daily News. Email, mcarey@adn.com.



Michael Carey