The worth of an education
Discussion about the institution that is a university becomes quite complex, and many opinions exist. As I researched and interviewed a large number of faculty and staff, it is clearly a contentious issue, especially since the concept has markedly altered a great deal. Nevertheless, what follows is my own take after a fair effort to look at the big picture, and an attempt to challenge some of my more dogmatic views.
First off, it is important to take a step back to examine how this institution came into being. The word ‘academia’ harkens back to Ancient Greece, where philosophers expounded on many interconnected topics dealing with the big questions of life that ultimately inform our moral choices on a daily level. Works by Plato and Aristotle have survived for over two thousand years, and were one of the cornerstones of what became the first universities in Europe.
‘University’ comes from universitas magistrorum et scholarium, meaning a union of masters and students. The University of Bologna seems to be the longest running university still in existence, as its first school began in 1088. The universities of the medieval era were monastic institutions where Latin was the universal language of lecturing, and they were centred on a standard curriculum. The Trivium contained the basic education, involving grammar, rhetoric and logic (dialectics), and prepared students for the Quadrivium, consisting of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. Specialization in a specific field still involved some mastery of subjects that we today may be inclined to mistakenly view as irrelevant. One may conjecture this was to ensure that scholars were of a certain calibre, and able to draw from different disciplines in their work. It is from this European tradition from which Harvard University was partially modelled; as the oldest university in America, founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1636, it influenced later Ivy League colleges.
One can see that our ideas have greatly changed, though this is only evident if we look beyond what we’ve been told. The university today is no longer really a provider of moral guidance. One can hope we take Plato to heart, but our concerns in this hyper-economy involve viewing our post-secondary careers simply as a means to an end, not something that may throw unwelcome wrenches into our plans as we discover things about ourselves that may be inconvenient.
The increased enrolment in university is also indicative of the recognition that a degree is a status symbol. There are actually significant differences between concepts like education, intelligence and knowledge, but our society narrowly accepts that a degree must indicate a higher rung on the ladder. That someone may have coasted through their courses is not immediately evident, nor is the independently learned scholar who dropped out viewed with much respect if their consumption of literature equates to a Masters level but is not “proven” and achieved by passing through the system. This opens up questions of class, where even an earned degree is of little worth if you are not climbing the prescribed path of your profession in a socially acceptable way and “doing something with it.”
Today, education is being pushed as a necessity regardless of the fact that the job market cannot even accommodate every worker seeking a job, let alone jobs requiring a degree. Thus, the case for limited enrolment. The opportunity to pursue higher education needs to be more thoroughly determined prior to granting admission. Those seeking employment opportunities also have the option of enrolling in skills-specific college programs rather than pursuing scholarship that requires an aptitude and interest that may be inherently lacking.
With the policy of No Child Left Behind, however, the testing ground for academic rigour is no longer the high school, as grading curves become inflated. This has only led to a woefully unprepared freshman class whose presence drops the standard for many others.
During my first undergraduate program at UofT fifteen years ago, for instance, professors were not as forthcoming about what may be on the final examination as they are today: failure was a real possibility. Though I think McMaster is an outstanding school in every sense, I do feel that the narrow passageways going through MUSC have gotten a bit too crowded. But this then also touches upon the University’s current need to financially survive.
A book published last year, Academically Adrift, offers a very bleak picture of education in America, where too many first-year students enticed to experience college life wind up dropping out, indebted. Two recent articles in the New York Times surmise that we have betrayed intellectual culture, and I tend to agree. As someone who has seen every single Woody Allen film, my idea of the intellectual is somewhat informed by his account of professionals in Manhattan during the 1970s and ‘80s, as they discussed complex issues, waiting in line for tickets to a Kurosawa film. This was before the era of American Pie and its successors shaped a revamped vision of Animal House as the new theme for college campuses across North America.
Not all are partying, however. Some are barely getting by as they work and try to pass their courses. Others are multitasking, involved in clubs and sports, and interning for free. Though one may achieve a stellar resume, it’s clear that our education is also getting co-opted by higher societal demands. Without the freedom to delve further beyond the syllabus into at least the few subjects that truly interest us, how well-rounded are we really? When else will we get a chance to be students and be valued for that if not while in university?
For both the slackers and the serious, it’s clear that the less time we spend on actual academics, the less the degree we earn is ultimately worth.