College Education For What?

Hilda Solis, Secretary of Labor, was interviewed on NPR yesterday. Among other things, she promoted the value of education as a way toward a higher standard of material well being, pointing out that she was the first in her family to go to college. She was challenged by a caller who complained that the only thing her college degree produced was a heavy loan she could not repay because she couldn’t find a job. What good is a college education if it can’t produce a well paying job, or any job at all?

That’s a pretty good question, and I’ll add one more; Is that what a college education is supposed to do?

We talked about that during the years that I had weekly meetings with a few students at one of our local liberal arts colleges. My counsel was that they were there to learn to become educated persons and not to get a job ticket. Our conversations about what it might mean to learn to become an educated person turned on acquiring the basics for life-long learning and the ability to think critically on the grounds that a democratic society cannot long exist without a critical mass of educated citizens.

That smacks of bit of elitism, and my politically liberal students would bring that up as an objection. Well, it is elitist. These students were of the elite. They were very smart: the few out of many selected to go to a college not all that easy to get into. Their curriculum was very challenging. They were receiving an education that relatively few others would ever attain. It does no one a favor to pretend otherwise. The more important question had to do with what might that mean for their future role in society.

None of that would guarantee a job of any kind. If getting a job ticket was a goal it would have to come through some other kind of technical training either in graduate school or a local community college. Most went on to graduate school somewhere and I lost track of them. A few went to local community colleges to become chefs, mechanics, machinists and so on. More than a few spent the next year or two working for AmeriCorps. Now and then I run into some working locally as secretaries, waiters and retail clerks. In every case they are educated persons able to take up the role of informed citizen. Perhaps they will.

4 thoughts on “College Education For What?”

  1. I think another way to make your good point, CP, is to think, \”Who is this excellent education for?\” If it's only about me getting a job or being better educated, then it is elitist in the bad way. If I went to college just to have a better degree than some state school and to have a better shot at getting into the grad school of my dreams so I could get a \”highly respected\” job, then it's elitist in the bad way because then I'm working to be better than others. But there are good forms of elitism, too. If my gifts, talents and education find their way to improving the world around me, then my \”elite\” skills are good. I don't want my doctor to know just as much as I know; I want her to know more. I want scientists, teachers, linguists, mechanics, and so many other trades to know more than I do so I can learn from them. Their knowledge and skills set them apart for a task. To make a rambling post short, yes, I am an elitist. My talents and education are not given to every person. That's not a bad thing if I use my gifts to help others (and they use theirs to help me; they have gifts I don't). Even if my education didn't translate to the right job for me (yet), I can still use it to think critically about the world around me and help others with any insight I might have.

  2. I am struggling to get my last child (out of four) out the door, I mean, through his senior year of high school. *g*He enjoys learning, is curious, compassionate and questions authority and the status quo (as all bright teenagers do), but because of the way his school teaches — asking students to spew out facts rather than learn to think — I am having to really work to convince him that college will NOT be just a higher level of high school with more of the same, but a place where he can explore and learn to really think and analyze and contribute.Now, after watching my other children in college, I'm not so sure that I am right about college anymore! Everyone is so focused on how much money a profession will make them and how much status it will give them. What happened to loving your work? Being interested and interesting?Ach, I could rant on forever, but I won't. Great topic, great post, I'll be discussing this issue with my high school senior again soon…

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