The Value of College

Ready for the students to arrive!

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 often marks not only when parents physically “lose” their children, but when the children start charting a path different than that preferred by parents.

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!

Some view the goal of college as purely economic: earn more and support the economy

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.

Last May I visited Dachau with students – the Nazi rise in Germany shows the power of propaganda and suggestions, even in a well educated, enlightened country

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!

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  1. #1 by pino on August 30, 2012 - 03:57

    Some think that colleges are offering too many courses and degrees that don’t translate directly into a better job or an improved economy.

    More on the jobs, less on the economy.

    Others say that college is so expensive that students are better off skipping the debt and going to work on their own.

    Think of it. Give your kids $120,000 in a fund that matures when they’re 60. That fund will be worth 2.5 million. Not bad.

    That to me is the most important benefit of college.

    Not the “most” but certainly a big benefit. No one wants to hire an enlightened European migration of the 13th century major. In fact, the computer science department at NC State has 100% of their students receiving multiple job offers in each of the last 4 years. I know one manager at the office that’s looking for a database programmer. She hasn’t been able to find one in 6 months of looking.

    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.

    Actually, college has just become an efficient sorting mechanism. It turns out that more important than education is IQ. Our formal educational system simply sorts people by IQ and therefore sends signals to employers.

    Did you know that graduating from Harvard isn’t indicative of success in life? It’s getting ACCEPTED into Harvard that’s indicative of success in life.

    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 is absolutely the primary goal of college. It is to prepare young people to be productive members of society. If, on the other hand, you claim that college is not focused on this role, then you cannot make the claim that one segment of our population makes more money than another.

    You simply cannot have it both ways. You may not claim that it is valuable to enjoy the finer aspects of Renaissance art while building a resume that won’t translate into any meaningful employment AND claim that society is unfair to the artist.

    • #2 by Scott Erb on August 30, 2012 - 07:03

      Well, since college is paid by loans and scholarships, the idea that you can invest the money rather than spend it is unlikely. I don’t believe the primary role of college is jobs and money making, though statistics show that is a side effect — a college education makes it likely people will make more money. Living “awake” is an end in and of itself.

      • #3 by pino on August 30, 2012 - 12:13

        Living “awake” is an end in and of itself.

        If someone chooses to Major in European Migration of the 13th Century they may not complain that there exists an income gap. You cannot bemoan the fact that people are struggling even as they continue to obtain degree after degree that no one wants to hire.

        Wanna job? Major in the hard stuff. Wanna hobby? Major in Zimbabwean Drum Rituals.

  2. #4 by lbwoodgate on August 30, 2012 - 05:04

    Whatever your major, I think what people gain from a well rounded education is the ability to think critically and evaluate their world more realistically. This sets people apart and is I think what makes them more successful.

    • #5 by pino on August 30, 2012 - 12:10

      This sets people apart and is I think what makes them more successful.

      IQ makes people successful. Finishing college is simply a demonstration of that IQ.

      • #6 by Scott Erb on August 30, 2012 - 13:03

        Actually, IQ isn’t enough – Malcolm Gladwell in “Outliers” gave examples of that. High IQ people will not necessarily succeed. College does help people discover their potential, plus get opportunities non-college grads don’t receive.

      • #7 by lbwoodgate on August 30, 2012 - 13:03

        That’s an over-simplistic assessment pino. While it’s true that IQ test strive to evaluate cognitive skills that measure “how well we reason, distinguish relationships and solve problems” they don’t, according to one source, “purport to tell the whole story of a person’s abilities. Things an IQ test doesn’t measure include creativity, emotional sensitivity, social competence, various acquired skills and many other things that usually fall under the general heading of intelligence.”

        So a person with a high IQ will not have value in all areas while someone with a lesser IQ rating who has greater creativity and the ability to work better with individuals and groups may prove to be the more effective leader. Thus success is not based solely on high IQs.

        You can be the smartest kid on the block, but if you lack vision and can’t get along with others, then your ability to succeed is inhibited. We are after all social creatures.

      • #8 by Norbrook on August 31, 2012 - 21:09

        IQ is a meaningless measurement of intelligence. It’s more culturally based than “hard science” based.

  3. #9 by Norbrook on September 1, 2012 - 11:19

    One of the biggest mistakes in the argument about “jobs” is that it assumes that college will prepare you for a specific career. It ignores that careers – and their requirements – change rapidly. Colleges give you the background to learn those new things and to adapt to them. The things I learned in genetics as an undergraduate were obsolete for my work in bacterial genetics in 10 years later, and the methods and understandings I used for that were obsolete 10 years after that for my work in genetic expression in hormone regulation. Those methods and underlying mechanisms I knew then are now badly obsolete.

  4. #10 by pino on September 2, 2012 - 02:12

    Actually, IQ isn’t enough – Malcolm Gladwell in “Outliers” gave examples of that. High IQ people will not necessarily succeed.

    Clearly, simply having a high IQ isn’t enough. However, given a high enough sample size, where things like determination, luck and other variables are “normal”, IQ is the determiner.

    In fact, years of education is really nothing more than a measurement of IQ.

    That’s an over-simplistic assessment pino.

    But it’s the best way to judge large groups of people.

    Those other attributes you mention are important, to be sure. But when the population of people gets sufficiently large, and those skills are spread across the population, you’ll find that those with higher IQ rise to the top.

    Take 100 people maybe only 20 are accomplished at emotional awareness and manage to do better than people with equally high IQ but lower values of that “emotional IQ”. Those folks will do better. But now take those 20 emotional folks….the ones with the higher IQ…they do better than the others.

    And so it goes.

    IQ is a meaningless measurement of intelligence. It’s more culturally based than “hard science” based.

    Whatever IQ measures….it’s a massive predictor of success in life. A better predictor than any other measurement I’ve seen.

  5. #11 by Scott Erb on September 2, 2012 - 13:21

    Actually you and Norbrook may seem to disagree, there is a common theme. IQ is shaped much by culture, and the “winners” in the culture are the ones reflected in how IQ tests are to be answered. So to say IQ test results predict success is to say that belonging to the dominant culture predicts success. IQ tests predicting success is not the same as intelligence predicting success.

    • #12 by Norbrook on September 2, 2012 - 19:22

      The other thing is that IQ changes over time, that someone who takes one at time X (say, 10 years of age) may do better or worse at age Y (30 years). As a measure of “intelligence” it is more determinative of your cultural background than actual intelligence. One of the themes that gets used in science fiction (Dickson’s “Space Winners” is a good example) is that being a genius in one milieu doesn’t mean you’re “a genius” in another. In fact, most modern people would fail miserably at an IQ test designed by Stone Age people. From their standpoint, you’d be a blithering idiot who had to be watched constantly to insure you wouldn’t hurt yourself.

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