Recently a posting about the cost of education in America compared to countries that offer “free” education got me really going on a tear for some reason. Some of the comments by people I know, like and admire, made me realize how many misconceptions people have about a liberal arts education. First of all, I understand people’s frustration with the current state of higher education in America–it’s a case of paying too much for too little. However, it isn’t entirely the learning institutions’ fault, though they certainly share the blame.
No, the biggest reason behind the failure of our high schools, colleges and universities is that we, as a people, do not understand the true nature of a liberal arts education and therefore devalue it. Listening to some administrators, students, their parents and the general public, I conclude that most people view getting an education as a means to an end–getting a job. Many people seem to think that when they, or the government, pay tuition that they are basically purchasing a diploma, certificate or degree that they need in order to become employed, like purchasing transportation or clothing or anything else that makes work possible.
See, I’m still on the warpath, but I’ll get over it. I’ll have to in order to keep my sanity. It did help to vent on the hapless people who commented on my comments on Facebook, and I thought some of my points were pretty darn good, actually, so I’m going to re-print them here.
Point #1–There is something to be said for providing high performing high school students with at least the first two years of college, like in Georgia. It’s not free–students have to work very hard in high school to maintain a B average to get a Hope Scholarship. Getting an education is the goal–not getting a job. We need citizens who know how to read and write well and most importantly how to think critically. We need to give people an incentive to truly learn something in high school, and we need to give parents an incentive to push their kids to do well in school. We could do this if we adopted something like what Georgia has.
Point #2–Getting an education is about more than getting a job–it’s about learning how to think critically and problem solve and be autonomous, not under anyone’s control except God’s. It’s power to the powerless, it’s learning how to appreciate art and literature and music. It’s about making life better for yourself and the people you love. We have lost our way; we have forgotten what a real education is, and we have substituted it with this paltry idea of mere job training. Show me a person who is truly educated–and I don’t mean has a degree–I’m not talking about degrees, and I’ll show you someone who has a career that fulfills him or her. And if that thinking person doesn’t have a job, then he or she doesn’t want or need one. (A bit hyperbolic but I was fired up)
Point #3–We need to start realizing that education is for everyone and start making our middle and high schools places of real learning again. I don’t think everyone needs a four-year degree. I think we need to start coming up with alternative ways for people to get their education, but the biggest concern should be helping people see the value of an education–of learning how to read with real comprehension, to write clearly and effectively, to use modern technology to do meaningful, practical research. Diplomas, degrees and certificates are meaningless unless people are learning skills like problem-solving that will benefit them no matter what they do for a living because more than likely they will be changing careers and jobs more than once in their lifetime, so they need to learn skills that will help them adapt to new work situations quickly–they need to learn how to critically think–we still have that in this country but it’s quickly being lost to this idea of utilitarian education that has been proven (just look at the results of the Industrial Revolution)–it’s called a liberal arts education and it works but only if the public understands the value of it, and right now liberal arts education is under fire and too many people don’t see its value. That is a crying shame.