On the purpose of higher education

Tonight I had an exhilarating discussion with my girlfriend on the topic of higher education. She argued, as is common nowadays, that higher education, especially universities, is totally out of touch of what the modern world needs. You still learn mostly from lectures with a hundred other people, and the lectures are delivered by some professional academic that most likely has never worked a day in the ‘real world’. Indeed, it seems like if you actually want to be employed in a job that you trained for, you would be much better off with a diploma or degree from a technical school or career college.

This is perhaps the most preposterous lie of our generation, yet it is widely believed and propagated.

According to a 2012 report of the US Census Bureau (linked here), there is a definite, clear trend of correlation between annual income and education level. So why propagate the lie that degrees are generally worthless, and that people should actually look into and actively pursue career options involving technical school or career college education?

First, I want to address the many insidious reasons why this lie is propagated widely Canada and the USA. Due to the government’s obligation to provide public education, it is important to ensure that said education has a high success rate. This means not only should most students graduate, but that students who choose to pursue further education should be able to pursue further education. Of course, the types of education available to students after graduation may be limited. After all, not every high school graduate can become a Harvard lawyer or a John Hopkins doctor. What about university education, period? Even then, not all students can be expected to get into an accredited university. Thus instead of dealing with the hard problem of trying to prepare all students for university, even those dealing with poverty, shattered home lives, and learning disabilities, it is simply easier to present the next best option as just as good or even better. Thus touting technical schools and career colleges as excellent options isn’t in the best interest of the students or their families, it is simply a cost-saving measure on the quality of education.

Second, the value of a proper university degree is not fully realized. A common pejorative used for university education, both used by people intent on criticizing university education and even graduates themselves, is that you only use “10%” of what you learned from school in jobs. This is seen as damning evidence that the university education system doesn’t work, that most of the time spent in a university is just a waste of time, and that you can get better value elsewhere. Even if we are supposing that it is true that you only use “10%” (a completely arbitrary number with no actual basis) of what you learned in a job, so what? Before you got into a specific job, did you know which 10% of your education will actually be useful? Steve Jobs didn’t. In fact one of his most ingenious ideas came from a part of education that would’ve surely be labeled as ‘useless’ for a computer-related job: English calligraphy. How do you think we have fonts in typesetting programs now? And instead of students and prospective employees worrying about how 90% of their education will be useless, shouldn’t the employers and entrepreneurs think about how to use the other 90% to their advantage? Specifically, instead of universally dismissing an arts degree as “useless”, why not look at what an arts degree is actually good for? The degree teaches you good writing skills, good ways to get messages across, how to argue effectively, and how to advocate effectively. All sound like important skills in communication to me. In a day and age where most organizations point to communication as one of their principal concerns, it seems paradoxical that you would find arts degrees to be ‘useless’.

Thirdly, the very notion that degree programs should be tailored to prepare people for jobs is ludicrous on multiple levels. The purpose of a university education is not vocational training. It is to provide a pathway to a higher level of thinking, so that you have the necessary tools to pursue any goal you want. Next, guess who should be the people training people to do jobs? The proprietors of said jobs. Nobody knows exactly what any specific company or industry does except the people who run that company and/or industry. The very idea that publicly funded education, which cost the students themselves thousands of dollars a year to participate in, ought to be the institution bearing the responsibility for training people to function in private enterprises is ludicrous. This is analogous to industries that routinely pay nothing but minimum wage costing tax payers billions of dollars a year by forcing the government to feed their workers. The purpose of higher education isn’t to reduce the bottom line of businesses.

Finally, just to drive home the point, degrees are not there to prepare you for a specific job or a specific industry. The greatest innovators and inventors of a field were never themselves holders of the ‘relevant’ degree. Do you think the people who invented computers had computer science degrees? There is a famous case of Greg Street, a game designer behind such games as Age of Empires and World of Warcraft, being criticized constantly by fans because he holds a degree in marine biology. He recently replied on Twitter saying what degree is he expected to hold? They certainly didn’t have degrees in video game design back in his day. This is the point I want to emphasize. The purpose of higher education isn’t to train you for a mundane job (which only requires a meager amount of knowledge, some say 10% of a degree). It is to prepare you to invent the next great thing that will change how the world works.

In summary, the entire regime of propaganda that surrounds higher education is quite simply a lie. The issue at hand is that mediocre and shortsighted businesses fail to see the value in the vast majority of degrees, the public education institution that has a political incentive to advocate clearly unequal educational paths as equal at the expense of university education, and a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of higher education by many members in society.

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