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The (Intrinsic) Value of Education

July 21, 2013

Yesterday, I read an interesting article in the “on campus” section of Macleans online called, “Doorman and ditch digger wasn’t what I expected with a B.A.” The author, a liberal arts graduate of the University of Western Ontario, argues that “tuition fees should be lower for programs that are likely to result in jobs.” To him, these “programs that are likely to result in jobs” do not include the liberal arts program.

Four years in school and all I had was the “ability to think critically.”

His article suggests that a liberal arts degree is of lesser value than a degree in say, engineering or the sciences (a STEM degree).

Of my friends who graduated with liberal arts degrees, all of them have either returned to school to be trained for specific jobs, found employment through family connections or remain underemployed. None have started a career on the strength of their liberal arts degrees alone. None own their own homes. None are married. None have children.

Parents-BasementWhen I first finished reading the article, I was very angry. How dare he even suggest that my liberal art degree is of lesser value than the other girl’s engineering degree! As if “value” immediately implies monetary value. But then I calmed down and wrote a 1000 word response instead. NBD.

I tried to upload my comments many time underneath the article, but it just wouldn’t let me, so I’m resorting to posting it here instead. A commenter named “GrumpyProf” also posted an interesting comment–I also replied to his questions in my long comment. (Also, props to his last comment.) Obviously, to grasp the full argument of my comment, it would help to read the original article–click here.

From oncampus.macleans.ca

From oncampus.macleans.ca

Although I don’t really have a solution to offer, I can definitely say that increasing the tuition to liberal arts is NOT the answer. If it really is, as Kasman says, that there is a shortage of technologists, engineers, “and other experts,” then lowering their program costs might offer an incentive to going into these programs. But why would you lower the tuition for liberal arts? Students who actually want a liberal arts tuition will have to pay MORE than they would need to. In a sense, arts students would be paying for engineering students to go to school, which doesn’t seem to be fair at all. Furthermore, I am positive that the difference in tuition between liberal arts and engineering is NOT a deterrence to those who really WANT to become engineers.

I am going into my last year of undergrad in liberal arts, and I can honestly say to you that I have been extremely thankful for my arts degree. I have become a more intelligent person, not just because I can memorize facts but because I can think critically (thanks to my philosophy and English programs). I can tell you that although I will probably never get a job with the job requirement, “Must know and be able to discuss Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics,” I am not too worried about this. Perhaps it is because I am still young, and I don’t have to worry about paying off the mortgage, but I am thankful for my wholesome arts education. In any given year, I am learning everything from “Greek History” to “Freud on Dostoevsky” and “the death of a low mass star” to “Haydn at the Esterhazy Palace.” I can tell you that although I don’t have any “marketable skills” like knowing C+ or Java, I can carry an intellectual conversation on just about anything, and I think that is what is important.

I have been unhappy about the university system for quite some time now. I have taken some classes that students in other faculties (science, management, engineering) take as electives. One class, for example, was full of students from other faculties. I often overheard these students from the other faculties telling their friends that the class on “Mozart and Haydn” was stupid and a waste of time. They complained that they had to take electives in the arts faculty because they were “never going to use it again.” When I hear comments such as this, I am deeply offended. I think it is such a shame that today’s society is fostering extrinsic motivation for going to university. Society tells us Gen Y kids that we need to flock into the sciences, engineering, and business because those will guarantee six-figure salaries. Better rack up those A’s kids or you’ll become a garbage man!

What we really SHOULD be doing is fostering intrinsic motivation for obtaining a university degree. It’s such a shame that those students who were complaining about the Mozart and Haydn class couldn’t see that learning about the world’s musical geniuses was a reward in itself. Funny that they were complaining that the Mozart and Haydn class was “so useless and easy” when the class average was a B-.

To answer GrumpyProf’s questions, I do think that universities should serve as a training ground for SOME occupations, like it does now with engineering and the sciences. But I do NOT think that tuition charged should represent the desirability of certain occupations. This just sounds ridiculous to me. I hardly think that tuition cost is a deterrence to a person who wants to become an engineer, especially when government aid/grant is so readily available. Furthermore, I definitely think that there is an intrinsic value in the knowledge, intellectual breadth, and life experience gained from pursuing an undergraduate degree, but of course, the answer to this question is subjective. I am grateful for my arts degree because it has introduced me to Aristotle, to Mozart, to Picasso, to Ezra Pound, to Wordsworth, to Newton, to issues of ethics and animal welfare, to issues concerning politics, ad infinitum.

I think the real problem here is that too many students go into university not knowing why. If you want to go to university so that you can become an engineer, doctor, or business analyst, then good for you: go to university. If you want to go to university to learn just for the sake of learning, then all the better: go to university. But if you’re going to university because that’s what everyone else is doing, or because “everyone should at least have a bachelor’s degree,” then I would encourage you to pursue other options. You will only spend four years doing something you don’t want to be doing or worse, you’ll be preventing someone who actually DOES want to go to university FROM going to university. My guess is that many of the “arts graduates who are still living in their parents’ basement today” fall into this last group: the group that never wanted to go to university but went and did it anyway. I strongly believe that if you love what you are doing, no matter what it is (music, writing, astronomy, &c.), then you will make something of it.

To even begin to solve the problem of too many graduates who just “sitting around in their parents’ basements,” I think we have to start at the high school level. In high school, “The University” is portrayed to be your salvation. If you get into university, you’re set for life. You’ll be guaranteed a job that’s better than any apprenticeship or college can get you. But this is horribly wrong! High schools need to give their students the real 411. More importantly, they need to tell their students that “if you don’t know what you want to do, then take a year off. Go exploring. Find your passion. It’s not the end of the world; God FORBID you end up graduating one or two years later than everybody else.”

A while ago, I wrote a blog post entitled, “My Two Cents on My Arts degree.” Click here to read it.

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