The value of a university education

Somewhere along the way, we have become wired into conceiving of formal education not as an end in itself, but as a means to material wealth, power or influence.

Picture by Matt Smith
Picture by Matt Smith

Much of the rhetoric on the unworthiness of a university degree, although prevalent, is flawed.

Many are quick to draw on examples of people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who did not need university degrees to be successful.

In the process, those skeptics often fail to mention the presidents, physicists, astronauts, human-rights lawyers, activists, medical doctors, surgeons and teachers who — like Gates and Jobs — are able to impact the world in a substantial way, but who would have been less likely to do so without a university degree.

Nonetheless, they are on the right track, and unfortunately at this moment it is much easier to be a doubting Thomas than it is to be optimistic.

Somewhere along the way, we have become wired into conceiving of formal education not as an end in itself, but as a means to material wealth, power or influence.

Because of this, university education has become a commercial affair between two people: the university administration becomes a false prophet who promises the kingdom of God, but only in exchange for money, status or other worldly things, while the student becomes a credulous disciple who blindly follows.

Regardless of this, we would be doing future generations a great disservice by simply demeaning the value or necessity of a university education.

Instead, our focus should shift from purely describing and criticizing, to prescribing a plausible solution.

With that said, there are some ways to undo this trend. First of all, we must continue to stress the importance of an well-rounded, interdisciplinary education, in which students become immune to the dangers of over-specialization or over-concentration.

This way, the business student is not simply a business student, and the physics student is not simply a physics student.

Secondly, although it is necessary to think deeply about the kinds of jobs available upon graduating from university, it is equally important to focus on learning just for the sake of it, rather than dreaming incessantly about some misconceived end goal or another.

In doing so, we develop an indirect benefit from our university experience — one that cannot be quantified by a meritocracy or by future employers, but serves as a benefit nonetheless.

Thirdly, we must stop belittling the significance of a background in the humanities.

An education — or even the semblance of an education — in the humanities goes beyond simply writing essays and sitting through tedious three-hour lectures about Jean Baudrillard’s post-modernist theories.

It gives each of us the opportunity to truly discover ourselves, and in doing so, we understand others better.

It also teaches us the value of asking difficult questions about the way we live our lives, the way we treat those different from us and the way we conceive of those things that have become almost too universal to question.

Moreover, a background in the humanities helps create a society filled with people who are not just good at their specific fields alone, but are also aware of their socio-political and cultural environment, and are able to engage in deep thought and dialogue about the things happening around them.

There is still a very long way to go in fixing our university system, and it will likely get worse before it gets better.

But, there are several people approaching this problem with a critical, normative and open-minded outlook, and that is reason enough to be optimistic, if not for our generation, then for future generations.

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