This is my favorite time of the year. New classes! New students! The energy on campus! There is a kind of excitement to the start of a new school year that I find invigorating.
Lately, however, many people have been questioning the value of higher education. The complaints vary. Some think that colleges are offering too many courses and degrees that don’t translate directly into a better job or an improved economy. Others say that college is so expensive that students are better off skipping the debt and going to work on their own. Mitt Romney tells young people to borrow money from their parents and just start a business! And cued from that comment, some complain that liberal professors “indoctrinate” students.
College is often a time when students change their views about the world. All of us go through life hypnotized in a way. Suggestions seep into our minds and shape how we think. Suggestions come from parents, advertisers, the television, peers, teachers and permeate our culture. Over time these suggestions cause people to see the world in which they find themselves as ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ and shut out other ways of seeing things.
In college those beliefs are challenged, students are encouraged to think for themselves, question what they’ve been taught and develop a critical, discerning and independent mind. In a sense students are challenged to question their programming, to liberate their minds from being slave to suggestions planted subconsciously by others. Students learn to view the world from different perspectives, understanding the limits of any one perspective, even their own. That gives people the power to go through life “awake” rather than hypnotized.
That to me is the most important benefit of college. Too many people, including those with a college education, go through life simply reproducing the beliefs and ideas that they hold due to the power of cultural suggestion. This is normal, that’s strange. This is how WE do things, those people who do things differently are odd, even dangerous. Eating dog is disgusting, eating cow is normal!
Another criticism involves the cost and benefits of college. To be sure, if you go to college you almost certainly will earn more in your life, even if you major in something with few jobs and earn only mediocre grades. While there are many who do great in life (in material terms) without higher education, they are a minority. Avoiding college limits career options in a fundamental way. Most professional positions are simply unobtainable without a college degree. Unless you can start your own business and have the natural talents to make it work, you’ll be competing with college grads for jobs — and potential employers will probably choose them over someone with just a high school degree.
There are exceptions. If you learn a key skill like plumbing, welding, masonry, or something in demand, you may end up earning more than many college grads. But you need to work hard and take pride in your skill — and anyway, I’d still recommend not skipping college!
The key fallacy in the argument about jobs is its implicit assumption that the primary value of education is to enhance earning power and get a particular job. That should be and is a by product, but the goal is to enrich and enhance life. For over 300 years the focus of western thought has been about liberation. The idea of freedom and liberty drove the colonists to rebel against England in 1776. It’s motivated the growth of science, philosophy, and rational thought. The idea is that individuals should use reason and evidence rather than mindlessly reproduce traditions and customs. This is true even for conservative thinkers like Edmund Burke who recognized the danger of taking that too far and appreciated the need for custom — for him it was the pace of change that mattered. Liberation too quickly is very dangerous.
A human who can experience the world with a clear mind, analyzing the suggestions that culture and tradition give, rejecting what doesn’t make sense and holding what does, lives life more awake than someone who simply goes with the flow and accepts the world as he or she finds it. Even someone who embraces the faith and tradition he or she was brought up with is richer if they choose their beliefs via careful reflection rather than simply reproducing what was taught to them. Not only will their faith be deeper, but they’ll also be less likely to fear different religions, cultures, and ideas — they understand rather than fear difference.
And what about those who don’t go to college? Are they all doomed to live ‘hypnotized’ by their culture? No – just as many with education don’t use it fully, many without it learn and find insight through other paths. College helps, but it is only one possible path towards liberating the mind. Chris Hedges told the story of how in Bosnia, when Serb and Muslim intellectuals rationalized violence and conflict between their groups, one uneducated Muslim farmer broke through the hypnosis and took milk every night for over a year to a Serb baby who would have otherwise died. Anything that pushes one to try to understand what they don’t know and entertain new perspectives and ideas can ‘wake up’ and move beyond cultural programming.
But as a college Professor I dedicate myself to trying to help students learn to think for themselves and question everything. A friend of mine jokes that I always say “…on the other hand,” but that’s an outgrowth of how I teach – there are always different perspectives to understand and incorporate. I do not want to indoctrinate or hold students to any standard of political correctness. I do not want to show disrespect for any religion or belief system, though I do want students to have the courage to make ethical calls about what some beliefs entail or some religious folk do. I want to help students learn to distrust pre-packaged ideologies and not be afraid of paradox. I believe its important not to be seduced by the power of logic (logic and reason can be used to prove almost anything you want them to in an uncertain world), but appreciate sentiment and intuition.
I’m excited, ready and looking forward to welcoming new students, reconnecting with old ones, and missing those who graduated. Bring on the new semester!