Monday, December 20, 2021

Columbia University v. Jacobsen: Do Colleges Teach Wisdom, Justice, and Beauty?

In a case decided over 50 years ago, Columbia University sued Roy Jacobsen, a former student, to collect about $1,000 in unpaid tuition.

Jacobsen countersued, demanding $7,000 in damages. He claimed Columbia had not taught him what it promised. Specifically, Jacobsen pointed to language in a brochure that said it would teach students "wisdom, truth, character, enlightenment, understanding, justice, liberty, honesty, courage, beauty and similar virtues and qualities."

Jacobsen also argued that Columbia had not lived up to its Latin motto: In lumine tuo videbimus lumen ("In your light, we shall see light") and a similar inscription over the college chapel: "Wisdom dwelleth in the heart of him that hath understanding."

In essence, as the appellate court noted in its opinion, Jacobsen's essential beef was that Columbia "does not teach wisdom as it claims to do."

Not surprisingly, a New Jersey trial court dismissed Jacobsen's claims, and the appellate court affirmed the lower court's decision.

"[W]isdom is not a subject which can be taught," the court observed,  and "no rational person would accept such a claim by any man or institution."

Obviously, the New Jersey court is correct. Students should not be able to sue a college because they failed to obtain all the intangible benefits that the college breezily promised in its brochures.

Nevertheless, the Jacobsen case reminds us that students need to think about why they signed up for college before writing those tuition checks.

The average cost of attending Columbia is more than $80,000 per year. Nobody lays out that kind of bread to get a deeper understanding of wisdom, justice, and beauty.

No, when students enroll at Columbia, they do so for one primary reason. They hope to benefit enough from their education to obtain a good job--one that justifies their student loans.

In lumino tuo videbimus lumin: What the hell does that mean?

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