Friday, November 28, 2014
Earlier this week, I watched Ivory Tower: Is College Worth the Cost? on CNN, which was a somewhat depressing documentary for someone who hopes to spend the next 30+ years in higher education.
One of the things the documentary decries is the construction of more and more extravagant buildings and amenities on college campuses.
While the extent and type of building that should occur can be reasonably debated – and my own institution has almost doubled the number of buildings on campus in the past decade – I want to make a relatively modest claim here: aesthetics matter in higher education.
(Photo of a Belmont University building and fountain from my iPhone).
Perhaps some schools have gone overboard in creating beautiful campuses. However, at institutions that exist to illuminate for students something much more important than mere financial returns, I think it is fitting to invest in beautiful campuses, for their own sake.
Again, perhaps most schools do not need student recreation centers than costs hundreds of millions of dollars, but there is something inspiring about going to a school, and teaching at a school, that is breathtakingly beautiful.
This post may surprise some people who know me because I tend to be a pretty practical person, and I still believe that campus buildings should be functional over fancy, if you have to choose. But I think we need to widen the lens when we look at the benefits college and graduate school experiences provide. Yes, the financial benefits are quite important, and most schools need to be actively looking at increasing the financial benefits and/or reducing the financial costs.
Hopefully, however, college is about much more than just paying money now for an opportunity to earn more money later. Hopefully, college is about building relationships, learning independence, learning to think critically, being inspired, being mentored, creating and appreciating beauty. Maybe this is wishful thinking from a professor, but I do regularly see students who seem to capture much more from college than just better job prospects. Granted, many students do not take full advantage of the meaningful opportunities available, but those meaningful opportunities exist and they are hard to capture on a balance sheet.
I don’t know what a beautiful building is worth. I guess we could measure its worth by counting the number of additional students it attracts to the school, but that seems cynical and narrow. Beautiful buildings may inspire. Inspiration is tough to quantify, but, nonetheless, I think it has value. Personally, I am thankful I work on a beautiful campus, and hope the campus inspires our students not only while they study here, but after they leave as well.