What Is Education For?

Plan II logoEvery week or so I stumble on another study showing that higher income is correlated with higher education. People with college degrees make more than those without them, and people with advanced degrees make more than those who stop at bachelor’s degrees, and so forth.

Unfortunately, a lot of people who have seen these studies have leapt to the mistaken conclusion that the purpose of  higher education is to prepare students for good paying jobs. And, invariably, that is followed by the argument that people should study something “practical.” To people who have bought into this line of thinking, “practical” does not include the liberal arts.

As someone with a bachelor’s degree in Plan II — the liberal arts honors program at the University of Texas — I tend to bristle at the idea that studying the humanities isn’t practical.  (I’m not alone in this point of view; witness Madeleine Robins’s post on English majors a few weeks back.) I studied a little of everything and my only regret is that I didn’t take courses in a few more fields. If I were counseling high school students on their college plans, I’d make a strong argument for Plan II or its equivalent at other schools. Getting exposed to everything from biology to classics to history to computer science sets you up for lots of future possibilities.

Humanities scholars are rushing around to counter the practicality argument by conducting scientific studies showing that liberal arts studies are, too, practical. Laura Miller — who favors liberal arts education — does a nice job of poking fun at these scholars in a recent article on the finding by Canadian researchers that reading literary fiction makes people more comfortable with ambiguity.

But Judith Shulevitz goes even farther than the earnest researchers in her defense of the humanities. In a recent New Republic article, she argues:

I propose that [the liberal arts] should survive, and thrive, because they give us science fiction, and science fiction creates jobs and makes us rich.

Take any world-altering feat of engineering from the past century or so and science fiction probably dreamed it up first.

Although as a science fiction writer I find it heartening that someone would defend liberal arts education because it leads to writing science fiction, I suspect Shulevitz has her tongue firmly in her cheek.

The reality is that what makes higher education valuable isn’t the job training side. The purpose of education is to teach people to think. People who can think can do all kinds of jobs, though it is true that they don’t usually make very good cogs in rigid corporate machines. (People who can think do tend to ask a lot of questions.)

And what is a “practical” field of study anyway? Maybe if I were better at the predictive side of science fiction, I could tell you the field you ought to study to be employable in 20 years. Or even ten. But the truth is, I expect that some of the ways people will be making a living in the near future haven’t even been thought of yet.

Obviously keeping abreast of high-tech skills will be useful, but the cutting edge skills are going to change rapidly. It’s unlikely that you’ll use the direct skills you learned in college by the time you’ve been out for five years. Unless you’re flexible and thinking about where things are going, you could be stuck.

It’s not that you don’t need to pick up practical skills along the way; it’s just that what skills are really practical is going to change quite a lot. What you really need to do to survive in this changing world is to understand how it works. And that’s where studying the humanities and getting exposed to a lot of different ideas comes in.

The current cost of education makes all this more difficult, of course. Back when I went to school, tuition at the University of Texas was cheap. I had some family help, but I also worked my way through school. It’s hard to do that now.

But the solution isn’t to turn college into job training. The solution is to change how we pay for education. Let’s go back to cheap tuition at our state colleges and universities — and yes, this means increasing taxes.

A well-rounded, well-educated populace is in all of our best interests.



What Is Education For? — 3 Comments

  1. As someone who started at a college with a “core curriculum” before pursuing a major, and as someone who has been trapped by the skills game between illness and the shifting ways business is conducted, I will second this. Being able to think outside the box will save your groats more often than not.

    And frankly, it’s interesting. Better citizens, and better people, come from education.

  2. I have watched the creep of technical skills replace critical thinking throughout my lifetime. Learning how to learn is most important. Tech skills often do not survive as useful for a decade these days.