Field of Science

The value of higher education

A few months back the Phactors had to hire help to move some heavy bedroom furniture, so the local moving company sent over a team of gorillas.  Typically enough they were relatively young and big guys.   But one of them says, “You’ve got some really nice art, abstracts, and so nicely hung.”  And in particular he was taken by one of the more sophisticated.  Then the other one asks, “Wow, those are great bonsai trees you’ve got.”  And then he begins discussing the why and wherefore of getting them started and the zen aesthetic.  The zen aesthetic?  From a couple of furniture movers?  Well, why not? 
Now this one episode illustrates a point that seems to have gone missing from recent commentary regarding the value of higher education.   The popular meme is that higher education just isn’t worth it in terms of getting a dollars and cents payback since the cost is so high and higher paying jobs remain quite limited.  No question higher education has been good to the Phactor; he did manage to pay and work his way through and graduate with three degrees and no debt, and got a decent paying job as a result.   But anyone who thinks higher education is just about how much money you’ll make, and a degree a ticket to a more lucrative job, is actually going to university for the wrong reason.  You go to get educated.  You go to learn a more sophisticated way to read, to write, to speak, and to think.   And yes, this frequently leads to higher paying jobs and professions.   But doesn’t higher education lead to an appreciation of many things you never ever would encounter if you had not had higher education?  Art, music, literature, plays; none of them have had much impact on my professional career, but my appreciation of such culture has greatly enriched my life, and indeed, our art collection has grown to an impressive size although simple acquisitive accumulation was not at all our goal.  One wonders if these critics of higher education’s value resented or lacked a basic “liberal arts” component to their education?  Who could argue that a plumber would earn more money by having taken a philosophy course?   But it may well make the plumber a more interesting member of our society.   Maybe one who sees issues in more nuanced shades of gray and in less stark black and white terms?   Given the simplistic, simple ideological thinking that abounds these days, two ideas strike me.  One, maybe higher education hasn’t been doing such a good job.  And two, maybe it’s in the best interests of ideologues to promote a less sophisticated, less intellectual citizenry who won’t see the logical problems and the insufficiencies of many arguments so easily.   My two movers much improved my feeling about how things are going, but the news is so filled with examples of weak intellectual tea, one wonders what this means about our society as a whole.  But with so many people denying what is known, with so many people relying on the inability of people to think critically, with so many people enamored with simple ideas and explanation, one wonders if a more intellectual public is what such people want at all?  And in that case it serves the promoters of ignorance to argue that a higher education just isn’t worth it.  How very unfortunate for all of us.