Socrates held that the disciplined practice of thoughtful questioning enables the scholar or student to carefully examine beliefs and be able to determine the validity of ideas. Jesus employed a similar Jewish practice of answering questions with questions, which forced people to think, process, and come to their own realization of truth, even if it contradicted beliefs they held just moments before. One of the cherished cultural beliefs of modern Western society is that getting a four-year degree at an accredited university is the best path to achieve success and obtain enlightenment. But is that belief true?
From a biblical perspective, it should be noted that a prominent theme runs throughout its pages—namely that God uses the weak and foolish things of this world to shame the strong and wise (1 Co 1:27). From the runt of the litter of Jesse's sons being anointed king of Israel to Jesus' choice of His own disciples, rarely has qualifications determined outcomes. The New Testament does list qualifications of a deacon and elder, but you'll notice they are decidedly traits of character and maturity, not education and ability. Despite this reality, the church quickly set up institutions of learning and theological accreditation in order to help ensure sound teaching and doctrine and these institutions then quickly became the gatekeepers of those qualified for teaching, preaching, and leading. Rather than calling or character, paperwork and educational pedigree became the primary indicators of one being approved for the work of the ministry.
That is not to disparage education—on the contrary, one of the hallmarks of the spread of Christianity throughout the world over the last two millennia is the establishment of systems of education and the rapid rise of literacy rates. This phenomena is noted by both Christian and secular scholars such as Vishal Mangalwadi in his book, "The Book That Made Your World", Robert Woodberry's groundbreaking paper, "The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy," and even atheist Tom Holland's book "Dominion." This of course is true in America as well where most of our oldest and most prestigious universities were founded as religious institutions of learning with the purpose of equipping and sending ministers and missionaries—a biblical foundation which sadly has long since crumbled and been replaced with secular humanism. So, what I am questioning here is not the value or importance of education, but rather the priority our culture has put on it and the faith which we place in it—because even good things can become idols.
A Downward Spiral
But the reality is, Western—and in particular, American—education isn't even that good anymore and is in rapid decline. Up until the 1980's, America was ranked number one in the world in education, but during our societal "Unraveling" (Strauss and Howe Sociological cycle), which began around 1984, American education began to slip and by 1990 had dropped to number six. That decline then accelerated throughout the 90's and then took a nosedive in the mid 2000's as we entered our societal "Crisis" in 2008. As of 2017, the US ranked 27th in the world in education overall and 38th place in math. This rapid decay is not attributable to lack of funding however, as America spends more on education per student than every other developed nation in the world except Luxembourg as of 2018. So what is contributing to our rapid educational fall from grace?
Part of the answer is pretty straightforward and uncontroversial—other nations simply caught up and then surpassed us. American test scores as measured by the OECD, have been fairly consistent since the mid 2000's—other nations have simply improved while we have not. However, there are other metrics which would indicate that American education is actually in decline. A recent study found that in the last decade (2006-2018), after nearly a century of trending upward, American IQ scores have fallen in nearly every category. Also, from 2006-2016, the average SAT score dropped 34 points, leading to a massive redesign in 2017 which was accused of dumbing the test down to improve scores rather than actually improve education. Likewise, ACT scores have been dropping for years and currently sit at a 3-decade low. Now in 2022, colleges en masse are dropping testing requirements for admissions entirely.
While there is some debate in explaining the decline in test scores and rationalizations abound for the push to dispense with standardized testing altogether, taken in the broader context, this trend is hardly encouraging. What is encouraging is that there are alternatives. Private and charter schools are one option, but homeschooled children typically score 15 to 30 percentile points above public school students on standardized academic achievement tests and a recent study found homeschoolers outperform even private and charter school students.
But these data are tied to primary and secondary education, not higher education in the vaulted halls of our esteemed colleges and universities. While that is technically true, and American universities are still considered some of the best in the world (though Oxford consistently ranks #1), the reality is that America has been slipping in global rankings for years, now with only 34 universities in the top 100 worldwide. Of course if students are going into their degree programs with lower test scores, without remedial learning, student output quality will also be poorer. So have American universities doubled down on core subjects in order to ensure graduates are proficient in math, science, and prose, document, and quantitative literacy skills? Not at all. In fact, studies have shown that only 25% of college graduates test as proficient in basic literacy. Furthermore, our stem programs are in a free fall as Asian nations overtake the US in every field. This dynamic leaves America increasingly dependent on a constant inflow of foreign talent—especially from China, Taiwan, South Korea, and India—to both build and maintain our highly technical society. In 2017, a full 81% of full-time graduate students in electrical engineering at American schools were international students, as were 79% of full-time computer science graduate students. Asian-Americans also happen to be the best academically performing ethnic group in the US, but the irony is that due to the meteoric rise of critical race theory in American academia, these studious students are pushed aside for the sake of diversity quotas. So, while we can no longer produce enough scientists, engineers, or mathematicians domestically, college admissions discriminate against Asian students because our institutions value "equity" more than, you know, maintaining civilization.
Activism Rather than Education
This is the crux of the issue, American academia—even at the primary levels—has been taken over by radical activists rather than sober and pragmatic educators. While liberal ideology has slowly consumed our education system over the decades, since the mid-2000's there has been a dramatic shift with a hyper-focus on critical theory, grievance studies, cultural Marxism (for an in-depth look at that subject, the article "Critical Mass" can be read here), sexuality, radical gender theory, and liberal political activism. One must only browse through the book titles the common reading programs universities around the nation recommend to incoming freshmen in order to understand activism is the priority rather than education. On that reading list is not a single classic, or even a book written before the year 2000. As the National Association for Scholars' assessment of the book list concluded, the themes strongly reflect “the common reading genre’s continuing obsession with race . . . and its progressive politics.”
Multiple studies have been published documenting this hard-left shift in education with even mainstream left-leaning outlets like the New York Times and liberals like Bill Maher lamenting the current state and ideology of our college campuses. Maher has had discussions with many guests about this issue, including Jordan Peterson and even Ben Shapiro, but one particularly damning segment from his monologue about college education on HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher" can be seen here:
As the New York Times' article "A Confession of Liberal Intolerance" documents, liberals have completely taken over academia and as a result, every form of diversity except diversity of thought is welcome. Extensive non-partisan studies have shown this liberal overrepresentation in American universities, which greatly accelerated in the mid 2000's. In 1989, 26% of Americans identified as liberals while 29% identified as conservatives. But of faculty on American college campuses, 42% identified as liberal and only 18% as conservative. By 2017, that imbalance had grown to 60% of faculty identifying as liberal and only 12% as conservative despite the US population identifying as 24% liberal and 31% conservative. The disparity among college administrators—whose ranks have swelled over the years—is even more stark with 71% identifying as liberal and only 6% as conservative. As a result of all this extreme liberal bias, polls have shown that among college student populations at this point, you're statistically more likely to run into self-identifying communist (36%) than a conservative (25%). This radical college campus culture has pushed conservative or even liberal professors who don't toe the ideological line to stay silent, or leave academia altogether—either willingly or unwillingly.
Numerous cases of university staff and professors being bullied into silence or resignation for their ideological nonconformity have surfaced in recent years such as Lindsay Shepherd and Bret Weinstein. Others, such as liberal atheists Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay couldn't stand the toxic race and gender-obsessed liberal environment any longer and just left. A few others such as Camille Paglia are fighting tooth and nail to remain in their tenured positions despite regular attempts to push them out while world-renowned professor, author, and psychologist Jordan Peterson finally gave up his tenured position and opted for emeritus status after losing all hope for academia.
But it's not just anecdotal stories. In 2021 the University of London published an extensive review of the rampant liberal authoritarianism and political discrimination against conservatives in academia which negatively impacts their hiring, promotion, and funding. The report also found that in the US, over a third of conservative academics and PhD students have been threatened with disciplinary action for their views while 70% of conservative academics report a hostile departmental climate for their beliefs. This only further validated the results of a 2018 national survey which found that two-thirds of American conservative professors fear sharing their opinions as well as even one-third of liberal professors. Ironically, but rather predictably, students at the university which employed the author of that survey demanded to have his tenure reviewed for writing about his findings in an article for the New York Times.
This highly-charged, highly partisan, highly ideologically driven college campus culture affects more than just free-thinking faculty however. A FIRE free speech survey of 20,000 college students found the majority (60%) reported feeling reluctant to share their thoughts and opinions for fear of reprisal—and for strong conservatives, that number increased to 73%. This vitriolic cancel culture has sworn many speakers—and even comedians—off of college campus tours. Not only does Bill Maher now refuse to step foot on a university, but other liberal comedians such as Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld as well. Conservative speakers such as Ben Shapiro may still visit a few campuses each year, but they often need a personal security detail, or even hundreds of police officers in full riot gear to manage outraged students. Free speech may be a protected American right, but when 43% of young people believe the Communist Manifesto better guarantees freedom and equality than the Declaration of Independence and a full 70% report they would vote socialist, campus culture becomes an isolated ideological echo chamber which is increasingly intolerant of bubble-bursting arguments, reality checks, and opposing points of view. But without a biblical worldview, Christians are just as susceptible to political ideologies which substitute government for God, as Barna research polls have clearly demonstrated (and for a biblical refutation of socialism, the article "Che vs. J" can be read here).
Weighing the Risks
This toxic environment along with several other factors has contributed to more and more Americans wondering if college is worth it with even the Wall Street Journal taking note that confidence in higher education has dropped to a mere 36% of Americans. In 2016, 70% of American high school grads were enrolling in college, but by 2020 that percentage had dropped to 63%—a decrease of four million students—and the next year it dropped again to 62%. The risk of young adults becoming indoctrinated into a radical liberal activist agenda is very real and should be a concern for Christian parents and students who at least claim to hold a biblical worldview. Statistically, that number is in decline with less than one-in-five practicing Christians holding a basic biblical worldview and less than one-in-one-hundred college-age Christians. It's very challenging for young adults who haven't really figured their own faith out to be immersed in an overwhelming environment of secular humanism where both faculty and peers denigrate the Bible, conservative values, and traditional morality while pushing them toward far-left ideologies—even if those ideologies are bereft of empirical scientific or historical arguments. This secular assault on young people's largely undeveloped foundations leads to over 70% abandoning their faith in their first year of college—some of which return in their 30's after marriage and kids, but 60% of which leave permanently.
But this isn't a binary option—you don't have to choose between faith or education obviously as for centuries men sought both and believed them both to be necessary and complementary. Albert Einstein once said, "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind." But not all education is equal. In a time when American society is in crisis, education has been almost entirely divorced from biblical or even objective truth, and educators have taken a decidedly antagonistic position toward God, Christianity, and traditional morality, one does not simply walk into college without counting the cost and girding up one's loins for the ideological onslaught. The vast majority of young people (or even adults) simply are not prepared to withstand such a torrential current, let alone swim against it. So, one must choose wisely where or when they enter university. Either at a location which demonstrably aligns with the student's values and goals, or at a later time after the student has built a strong enough foundation to weather the storm.
But it's also important to ask the simple question of whether or not college will actually benefit you. More and more major industries and corporations are asking the same question, with nearly half starting to eliminate degree requirements for job positions. Furthermore, there are a lot of worthless degrees offered and a lot of students are majoring in them as Bill Maher notes. So, with college costing an average of $30,500 per year, you may want to consider some facts and stats before taking the plunge:
Half of US human resource leaders don't think college prepares students for a career
90% of US employers would accept applicants without a degree
Only 1% of US employers care about GPA, instead favoring skill or experience
40% of college graduates gained no demonstrable knowledge
56% of college graduates said college wasn't worth the time and money
73% of college graduates do not end up working in their field of study
38% of college graduates end up working in jobs which require no college education
80% of college students change their major 1-3 times, which leads to...
The average student takes 6 years to complete a 4-year degree and...
The average graduation rate is only 55%
With the total student debt standing at an astounding $1.75 trillion and roughly 5 million borrowers who are unable to repay their loans, champions of alternative paths like Mike Rowe of "Dirty Jobs" fame are trying to change the cultural narrative about college and divert young people into career paths which are in demand, pay handsomely, and don't require a degree in gender or grievance studies. In Mike's words, "America is lending money it doesn't have to kids who can’t pay it back to train them for jobs that no longer exist. That’s nuts.” Again, that's not to say a 4-year degree program has nothing to offer as labor data does indicate that average and median salaries of college graduates are higher, but there are a lot of other factors to consider besides income—like the average $460 per month payment for a student loan and having tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt hanging over your head as you begin your life, career, marriage, and family.
So, for students about to graduate high school and are contemplating their next steps, some time should be devoted to thinking about what they want to do with their lives, what career path they'd like to pursue, what careers are actually in demand, and whether or not those careers truly necessitate a traditional degree. A great way to do that is to actually explore options, better understand your giftings, mature a bit, and delay going to college for at least one or two years. This practice is often referred to as a gap year and is becoming more common and even encouraged by top universities like Harvard. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt make a compelling case for taking a gap year in their book The Coddling of the American Mind. A brief segment from an interview they did with Reason TV summarizes their gap year argument:
For Christians, young people should be praying and asking God what His purpose and design for their life is and exploring those options while parents should be releasing them when they discover it rather than pressuring them into education and career paths which they believe will impress the most people and pay the most money—because neither of those are biblical values. Ironically, I have found the greatest hindrance to young people entering the incredibly in demand career of full-time missions is parents—who dedicated their children as babies but renege when God comes calling 18 years later. But exposing young people to the needs and reality of the world outside their own culture is one of the most incredibly sobering, maturing, and life-changing experiences they or their parents could ever hope for and one which might just open their eyes to a whole new world of possibilities. At the very least, it gives young people time to establish their foundation and grow in their walk with the Lord so that their subsequent college experience doesn't end in shipwreck, but rather, better equips them to walk out Peter and Paul's instruction to defend the faith.
We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ... -2 Co 10:5 ESV
But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. -1 Pe 3:14-16 ESV
Epilogue: Institutional Decay-ism
It should be noted that the sad state of American education is really just a symptom of a much larger disease. As many have observed (ex: here, here, and here), academia is dying. But one level below that fact is the reality that institutions are dying, and yet another level below that fact is the uncomfortable reality that Western civilization is dying. As anthropologist Joseph Tainter described in his historical overview, "The Collapse of Complex Societies," civilizational complexity increases over time until it reaches a point where it becomes so complex and convoluted, it collapses under its own weight and inefficiency. Like all things in nature, civilizations decay over time and ultimately succumb to Decadence, and finally, Collapse. Unfortunately, we have all the tell-tale signs of a society ripe for collapse. With this in mind, the church needs to prepare for a very different future by looking to her past to navigate these troubling times.
"A state of society where men may not speak their minds cannot long endure." -Winston Churchill
"Civilizations in decline are consistently characterized by a tendency towards standardization and uniformity." -Arnold Toynbee
“The West may collapse very suddenly. Complex civilizations do that, because they operate, most of the time, on the edge of chaos.” -Niall Ferguson
“The Earth is littered with the ruins of empires that believed they were eternal.” -Camille Paglia
“Civilizations come and go; they conquer the earth and crumble into dust; but faith survives every desolation.” -Will Durant