The Value of an Education

The Value of an Education May 12, 2008

My dad just sent me a link to an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education for my thoughts. After writing him, I thought I’d share some of my response to him here as well. I’m not an expert on education or educational theory but I do have 12 years of higher education schooling between time as an undergraduate and as a graduate student, and 5 and a half years as a full college instructor and adjunct professor at the university level. I also have a teaching award already if that helps with my credibility at all!

Here is the article to which I will respond:

First, I agree that not everyone is cut out for college. Most universities are not as small or as selective as the two which I have attended, and at which I’ve only ever taken or taught 3 classes that were so large as to be detrimental to all hopes of individual attention from professors to students. So, I have to concede that while my own experience has been that college can be focused on personal formation; at a lot of schools, there is not the personal attention and commitment to students that backs up the claim that generally, for most students, college is about personal formation and not just about career training. I personally think colleges should be, as mine have been, far more focused on personal formation than they presently are. But part of that means colleges being even less immediately economically efficient than Nemko is promoting here.

As far as I’m concerned, outside of a couple orienting theory courses: teachers should be learning to teach through apprenticeships with teachers and business people should be learning how to do business by working at businesses. Same for numerous other skill-based careers. Those people should be using college for intellectual and personal formation primarily. You can study the basic background theoretics and information needed for your particular field, but you should spend the majority of your time in the liberal arts learning those things that are “irrelevant” to your future job but crucial to your being a well rounded human being who understands culture, history, science, art, literature, philosophy, economics, a foreign language, psychology, politics, religion, etc.

I think it’s frankly insulting and short-sighted when Nemko asserts that those who are college educated would outpace those who aren’t college educated even without college since they are brighter, more talented, and “have more family connections.” The more family connections comment is just a passivity to de facto class structures that is really bothersome. The idea that just being bright or talented means you don’t need an education is really dismissive of the value of what education offers. I agree that if all you’re interested in is making money that you can do that reasonably well on your natural intelligence and other talents. I agree that the average entrepreneur can likely learn more about starting a business by hanging around businesses for four years than by attending a university. And I agree that if you’re going to wind up a cab driver or a bar tender that you don’t need a $100,000 degree to do so.

But the question is not just about how to make money but how to be a critical thinker more broadly. How to use your mind as more than simply a tool for production but as a means to itself and a measn to the broader goods of self-cultivation and critical citizenship. And in that case, I don’t think there are too many better things in life than an education. People’s minds don’t open on their own. Critical thinking, lively writing, literary appreciation, historical insight, psychological awareness, scientific sensitivity, artistic creativity, logical rigor, mathematical formality, spiritual nuance, cosmopolitan familiarity, and on and on are skills that are as important to be apprenticed in as making money or performing surgeries. I have had incredibly bright students but I’ve yet to have one whose natural talent made them a better critical thinker than I was as their teacher. I have had students who have the potential to be better thinkers than I am but without the right tutelage in how to ask the right questions, and without their getting up to speed with what’s already known, it likely won’t happen.

And that’s what this is all about. If you only use your mind in certain ways you don’t know how to think in other ways. That’s why it’s embarrassing to sometimes read scientists expose their ignorance outside of science when they start pronouncing on philosophical matters. They’re frequently infelicitous with philosophical categories because that’s not how they’ve trained their minds and it’s not where their knowledge base has been built up and so they don’t even understand what the questions are or what the complexities of the best currently available answers are.

The economic benefits of being able to think in the multiplicity of ways that a well rounded liberal education teaches are intangible. Nemko himself has allowed his thinking to be shaped nearly entirely in terms of what his own career, as a career counselor to undergraduates, involves—-cost/benefit analysis of his charges’ economic prospects related to their college and career courses. So, to him the political consequences of having more citizens who are less well rounded, less historically, philosophically, psychologically, economically, theologically, scientifically, linguistically aware don’t matter as long as those same citizens don’t waste $100,000 on a degree that “their job doesn’t require.”

Now, again, not everyone is fit for college. Not everyone is going to succeed and not everyone will learn best there. Some people will get different, comparably good benefits of personal formation through unusual routes specific to them and for those exceptional, idiosyncratic folks, I would not block the door as they exited the university. Some rare people might just be too smart for college or learn in a different way. And definitely many careers that are skill based would find better preparation in apprenticeships. And some people just cannot hack it intellectually and drag down the standards across the universities by crowding the classrooms and lowering the lowest common denominator bar to which some professors may teach.

But, what worries me is whether accepting this as a fact of life perpetuates de facto class inequalities. The norms that (1) let many more students accept their lack of fitness to even the exposure to university education, (2) turn a college degree into just a technical training, and (3) tell people not to bother with college if it won’t increase their personal earning potential, are each norms that lead to citizens who are more ignorant and less capable of informed, critical evaluation. This hardly seems like a wise thing to encourage in a democracy. They are also norms that lead to less educated parents who are in turn less equipped to rear reflective, informed children with strong habits of learning. From very early childhood, parental emphasis on education and training in thinking skills seems to be extremely influential on later mental skills from everything I’ve ever heard or read. Maybe the first kid to go to college from a given family doesn’t advance the previous generation the way the family might dream he would. But by striving to raise the family’s bar a bit in terms of overall education, maybe in the next generation the room for growth increases further as the kid still has an economically downscale parent but now one that is that little bit more trained in the ways of the mind. And of course, the case can always be made that the benefits of an education make life intrinsically richer, regardless of concerns for earning power, responsible citizenship, or effective child-rearing.

This is all very frustrating to me because our capitalist society only values what it can correlate directly to a profit. Articles like Nemko’s assume the dogma that the mind is only valuable insofar as it can be made into an immediate tool for specific wealth production. Both the long term benefits and the intrinsic benefits of minds developed for their own sakes just makes no sense on that short term cost-benefit analysis rooted in that particular value-priority scheme.

And, by the way, it is that same overly capitalistic thought process that threatens to reduce academia to a research production machine instead of primarily the home of educators. And this results in someone like me, who is most talented and successful as a teacher, feeling deeply underappreciated, barely successful, and fearful for my future prospects until I can prove myself as a publishing writer. And that just seems to me counter-productive to the academy.

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