Friday, September 11, 2009

Freedom from the education fallacy

There have been a couple of posts on this blog earlier this year discussing the limits of the good of a humanities education. Blogger John Armstrong recently shared his thoughts in a similar vein.

I have amassed plenty of formal education (including a master's degree in which the diploma is written in Latin, which I find very pretentious, so I don't display it). In my growing up, formal education was basically a part of the cultural environment of the home - both parents with PhDs (I remember people calling asking for "Dr. ___________" and I had to ask the caller which one), and all four of my grandparents even had at least a four-year degree, with three of them holding graduate degrees. It was just always pretty much assumed that I and my two younger siblings would earn bachelor's degrees at the very least. Two of us have gone the formal education route, and the third easily could have, but had employable skills in the technology (software development) field, and he couldn't resist making good money so never finished a formal degree. My degree is in humanities; my sister's at least is a practical one in nursing, which she uses in real life.

A humanities degree has worked out for me only because I knew in college that my profession would require a certain type of masters degree anyways, so I could study whatever the heck I wanted in college - I still would have to go on a step further. If I had not known then what profession I would be entering, the degree would have left me with nowhere to go in the real world. Even though I found the subject matter interesting, I would not make the same choice now, 10 years after graduation. In fact, if I ever wanted to change professions, neither of my formal degrees would matter at all - I would pretty much have to start from scratch.

All of this on my mind because I now have the role of being a father myself. It is important to me that I be careful not to let the kinds of assumptions that were in place for me be in place for my children. The world of the next generation will only see continuing specializations in terms of professional opportunities; unless my children show a particular aptitude for humanities, I will most certainly steer them away from such a course of study. It may leave the world a somewhat less culturally enriched place, but hopefully it will spare my children impoverished existences in the kind of global marketplace that will develop during their lifetimes. The world in which I grew up, one that encouraged college as a way to secure a good life for yourself, simply is not the world that is down the road.


John said...

I fully agree.

Unless my daughter shows a special attitude for the arts or humanities, I would urge her not to pursue them without a marketable technical skill, such as computer repair or plumbing.

I will steer my daughter to think about what she can do that can make money in a job market. There's nothing in the world quite like being employed. I want her to know that feeling most of the time.

If I had it to do all over again, I would probably get a 2-year IT degree and work in that field.

John said...

There was so much noise going on in the background that I wasn't able to complete my thought.

I really like the way that Larry titles this post. It's very Harry Browne-ish in that it urges reader to be free of fallacious, burden-producing thinking.

I used to think that I wouldn't be a complete person without a Ph.D. But this was the identity trap. It might be fun to get a Ph.D, but it's not necessary to take on expensive educational programs to be oneself.

The only reason I can see for getting any degree is cold, hard cash. Well, at least for me. Other people may be different.

Jeff the Baptist said...

Even if someone shows an aptitude for the arts or humanities, it is highly debateable whether the college education in them actually serves to further it. Every writer who has talked about his craft basically says you get better by reading other people's stuff and writing a lot of your own. And getting turned down a lot. I imagine many of the other creative arts work similarly. Once you've learned the fundamentals of your creative discipline, you get to work.

Now you may want to get a degree in something that can pay the bills until your writing/drawing bears fruit. A lot of writers teach for this reason. But it doesn't actually help you become a better writer, it just keeps you from starving to death while you become a better writer.

Divers and Sundry said...

"Even if someone shows an aptitude for the arts or humanities, it is highly debateable whether the college education in them actually serves to further it."

I agree. I wish we could scrap our entire education establishment and start fresh. Going to school and learning are not the same thing. One can have either one without necessarily getting the other.

bob said...

I didn't attend college. What I find interesting is the lack of real intelligence in a lot of the college graduates I know. In fact I think many people I know assume I've been to college based on native intelligence.

So if you have employable skills a college education can be just a way of emptying your wallet.

John Wilks said...
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Divers and Sundry said...

"The goal of higher education is learning how to learn."

I like to think that lesson's been learned long before the years of "higher education" begin.

Dan Trabue said...

Well, I'd like to join in on the scrap education bandwagon and there certainly is a strong case to be made for serious reform and reconsideration. At the same time, MY public school education has taught me to think, given me an aptitude and an attitude towards learning myself and finding things out for myself. My secondary and college educations provided some very helpful skills that I would have been hard pressed to accomplish on my own.

Some of my greatest heroes have been educators. Although, at least one of my greatest heroes who was also an educator tends to agree with you (Wendell Berry).

Regardless, I'd not advocate throwing out the baby with the bathwash, all I'd advocate is just throwing out all those crazy math requirements...

Jeff the Baptist said...

"I like to think that lesson's been learned long before the years of "higher education" begin."

Maybe, but my college education in engineering was essentially 4 years on the engineering approach to problem solving. The topic of each class was slightly different, but ultimately all used the same approach.

Anonymous said...
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John said...

Yes, college can be great for teaching critical thinking skills. I think that it's just important to make sure that those skills have a financial return.

I'm finally at the point in my career where I'm better off for having gone to college. But it's taken a very long time.

Divers and Sundry said...

"Yes, college can be great for teaching critical thinking skills."

I believe it's never too late to learn for those who haven't gotten that, but I'd be horrified if I thought my kids went to college without already having critical thinking skills and knowing how to learn. Yikes! If folks get to be high school graduates without developing critical thinking skills and having learned how to learn, I think school up to that point has been largely a waste of time. But then I'm in the scrap-the-current-education-system camp, so I'm prejudiced.