Thursday, May 22, 2014

What If We Treated All Education Like We Treat College?

By far one of the most annoying and disturbing trends in discussions around higher education is the pressure to conform a liberal arts education to the trade school model. That is, according to many, we should quit teaching all of this namby pamby "theory" and "art" and "literature" and anything else that isn't immediately and directly transferrable to one's future employment (leaving aside, of course, the fact that many things which don't seem immediately applicable to the job market, like say a better understanding of how various cultures interact, actually can significantly aid one in finding employment. Or the fact that we can't chemical engineer or business administration away institutional racism and structural inequality, but anyway).

I was especially reminded of this when mindlessly scrolling through this typically obnoxious buzzfeed post of commencement speech quotes that someone posted on facebook. The most striking was a quote from Ed Helms, saying "if you majored in Classics, that one's on you. We'll be seeing you and your bust of Euripides at job fairs for years to come." Even going beyond how dripping with unearned condescension that quote is, the fact that it's coming from an actor is especially rich. Especially one with a degree in film theory. You know, the exact kind of major someone at his own commencement probably made fun of for being useless and never leading to employment. Except of course it's led him to roughly $20 million net worth, indicating maybe it was a fairly worthwhile major after all, if you're measuring in terms of future earnings.

But my point is not about whether more esoteric majors can lead to good future earnings, and in fact, I think that is a profoundly misguided way to look at college majors. Because not everything learned in college needs to be exclusively and directly applicable to some sort of job. Beyond the obvious fact that the job market keeps evolving and there's a decent chance today's graduate may end up in a few years applying for a job that doesn't exist right now, a liberal arts education is not meant to be a vocational school. It's meant to teach you applicable skills, sure, but it's also meant to teach you how to be a well-rounded person with knowledge about the world.

I write this as someone who majored in Sociology and Humanities with minors in Music, History, and Philosophy. Every last one of them a "worthless" major according to the college-as-trade-school crowd. Yet here I am, gainfully employed in my chosen field. But the bigger point is that I didn't take those classes to get a job, I took those classes to learn things. Sure, my philosophy courses provided me with few skills applicable to the various jobs I've had, but they challenged my worldview and understanding of life in profound ways. Ways that made me a significantly better person for having pondered and worked through.

So I often wonder what elementary education would look like if we applied this same mentality. Learning to tie your shoes? No one's going to pay you for that. Learning right from left? No one's going to pay you for that. Learning addition and subtraction? No one's going to pay you for that. In fact, there's no job that's going to pay you for what you learn in grade school, so we should probably get rid of the whole thing, right?

No comments: