The university I graduated from spoke endlessly about equipping students to be “leaders,” which mystified me. What if I don’t want to be a “leader”? What are we supposed to be leading? How can society function if everyone’s going to be a leader? “Leader” made me picture a business major preparing to be a CEO someday. I knew for damn sure I wasn’t going to college to learn how to be a leader, I was going to college to get an education.
Of course most of my assessments of the situation were pretty naïve (except for equating “leader” and “business”, since it’s clear that the business sphere controls nearly everything in our world). I’ve learned since then exactly why the university billed itself as a place to train leaders and “inspire greatness.” It’s because private universities reinforce the current class structure, so whether or not their students are actually going to go on to be leaders, the universities need to use the rhetoric of leadership to sell their bill of goods. Mere education is not enough. A certain sort of parent needs to know that their progeny will take a seat of some importance within our social structures. My parents and the parents of many of my friends didn’t think this way; they paid the exorbitant prices to ensure that we got a quality Christian education. But that’s why I didn’t understand the “leadership” bit.
Here’s the problem: when you say that the goal of your educational institution is to create leaders, you’re automatically assuming a hierarchy, and you’re assuming that excellent education (or what you claim is excellent education) is only for those towards the top of the hierarchy. (That’s where you get horrifying situations like the question on the Eaton entrance examination which asks 13-year-old boys how, as Prime Minister, they would justify the murder of protestors; someone going to Eaton has a much better chance of, in fact, being Prime Minister than does someone attending most other schools). Those who are to be led, it is assumed, don’t have any business getting a really high quality education. Of course in real life, most of the people who go to schools that talk about “leadership” (especially the abundance of colleges like my own which cater to the Christian middle class) end up being led more than leading, but by continuously emphasizing the rhetoric and the desirability of leadership, these schools continue to reinforce the assumptions of a hierarchical society. And the insidious suggestion creeps in that people who aren’t leaders aren’t well-educated and therefore deserve to be at the bottom of the social hierarchy.
There’s a more sinister side to leadership rhetoric coming from a Christian college. As has been copiously documented by young adults coming out of the conservative/fundamentalist Christian subcultures, many Christian parents hoped to train their children for the “culture wars.” We were supposed to be not just leaders, but leaders who will take back the nation for Jesus. We weren’t supposed to lead America in any sort of general way, we were supposed to lead America in a specifically religious way. Christian college was the final stage in our culture warrior training. The university I attended constantly used phrases like “engaging the culture for Christ,” or “redeeming culture” which would perk up the ears of any parent who wanted their child to be one of a new generation leading America to Christ.
These days, colleges are businesses. Especially private colleges. As a private Christian university, my alma mater had to promise prospective customers (students and their parents) that the ludicrous amounts of money sunk into four (or five or six) years there would be worthwhile. Not worthwhile in the nebulous terms that the hippie college down the road might use. Not worthwhile as in self-improvement, broadening one’s horizons, learning how to be a better citizen. Worthwhile in terms of status, in terms of maximum impact and power, in terms of money.
Education ought not to be bought and sold for status and power, or for promises of status and power. When I wondered “if we’re all supposed to be leaders, who are we supposed to lead?” I was betraying appalling ignorance. I was unwittingly using “all” in a sense that paid homage to my Calvinist upbringing. I couldn’t grasp the fact that many people weren’t getting an education from a private university promising to turn them into leaders. I didn’t realize just how much of a privilege education is. Now I know, and I am ashamed and grateful at the same time.
Everyone should be able to access the education they want. There are leaders waiting to be found. A good education and the opportunity to lead will bring out their best qualities. An education engineered to produce leaders turns very quickly into an elitist circle-jerk. A true education will bring forth leaders from the most unexpected places.