University for the wrong reasons

By Eric Mathison

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Seven years ago, I started an undergraduate degree at Mount Royal College (it was a college then), and in that time I have switched majors, had major switches in my life and I’m still not exactly sure what it is I want to do when I’m finished. Especially over the past semester, I’ve had a question gnawing at me from time to time: what was I thinking?

This isn’t the same thing as saying that I have (too many) regrets about the whole experience, or even that I wouldn’t do it exactly the same if given the chance, but I have in mind the more literal sense of the question. When I finished high school to start this adventure I had no idea, of course, that it would be so ambulatory. Nor did I know how different I would become. So the question I’ve been trying to answer is the one in which I confront what I, my teenage self, thought was so good and worthwhile about university.

There’s an immediate answer that I fear is probably the most correct one: I didn’t know what else I wanted to do, and university was an obvious option. As Shaun Brumder says in Orange County, one goes to university “because that’s what you do after high school.”

Straw man though he might be, I’m tempted to be picky and point out that Brumder is confusing description with prescription. We do go to university after high school– or at least many of us did– but that isn’t the same thing as saying that we should go to university after high school. Perhaps we shouldn’t. Or perhaps at least some or maybe even many of us shouldn’t have gone to university, not because we weren’t qualified, but because it wasn’t a good idea compared to the alternatives.

On the one hand, it’s a banal point. There are people, of course, who start university only to decide that it’s not for them, whereas there are others who work or travel or start a family only to realize later on that they wish they had gone to university. On the other hand, now that I’m on the other side of the experience, I realize that the reasons many of us do go to university– because our parents told us to, to get better paying jobs, to have more sex, to avoid work, because our parents told us not to– are the wrong sorts of reasons.

If you do want to get a better paying job, university is usually a good bet. It’s also the case that if you do want to have more sex, you could do worse than to pick university (but again, usually). The issue isn’t the superficial reasoning that if you want x, do y. That’s often right. Rather, the problem is that x is the wrong goal, or at least x is not the only goal one should have in mind.

My worry then– the thesis toward which I’m ambling– is that individually many people go to university for the wrong reasons, which means that they miss out on some of the main benefits of university, which in turn– and here’s the grander statement– hurts society. Actually, the problem is circular, because as more people mistake the primary goals of university, the harder it is for university to hold on to its original values.

But let’s take it one controversial premise at a time and look at some possible negative outcomes. The first point is that university is not just instrumentally valuable. (Or, again to be picky, it provides instrumental valuable of a deeper sort than making money.) Although university has instrumental value, like increasing earning potential, it isn’t valuable in only that way. The pursuit of knowledge is valuable for more lofty reasons, like helping us choose how best to live our lives and making us better citizens.

This “university is merely a means to make more money” argument is part of what University of Toronto philosophy professor Mark Kingwell calls “the standard position” of post-secondary education: university is good for providing a specific job that promises to pay more money than if you hadn’t gone to school. As Kingwell observes, the ultimate usefulness of university “will be understood as career success of one sort or another, especially as measured by the accumulation of wealth.” Kingwell correctly finds fault with this stance.

This position is the standard one because of this common market analysis: a degree will cost x, but you will make y with the job you will end up getting, and so long as y is greater than x it’s a worthwhile investment. Even a humanities student can understand the math. The problem is that not all value from a university education is so easily quantifiable. Economists can’t as easily measure if we become happier with more education, or the extent to which a broad education contributes to our ability to make informed decisions for ourselves and society. Market value doesn’t exist for those characteristics of university.

The second point is one of efficiency. For those who desire more sex or social interaction or fun experiences, there probably are better ways to achieve those ends without spending thousands a year on tuition, textbooks and non-academic fees. In Canada, a gap year usually means working for a year to afford post-secondary education, whereas in Europe, New Zealand and Australia, it’s more common to travel in between high school and university. And it turns out traveling is a great way to have more sex, social interaction and fun experiences.

The negative result for people who take a humanities degree because they think they will get a better job out of it is that they probably won’t, and the other goals they have– sex and drinking mostly– are more easily achieved without all the studying. The efficiency point is one I know intimately. I could have waited a full three years between high school and university and, had I discovered what I wanted to study during that time, I would still be finishing now.

Some people on the other end of the spectrum are equally mistaken. I’m astounded now when I meet people who haven’t switched majors. It can’t be because the courses were exactly what they expected– they never are. Indeed, when one enters university with mistaken goals and graduates without acquiring the self-reflection and critical thinking that makes the experience more valuable than the job at the end, one finishes with mistaken goals too. On this point, the physicist Lawrence Krauss said it best during a recent talk at the University of Calgary: “I hope that there’s some fundamental belief that you hold, and I hope that during your time at university you will realize that that fundamental belief is wrong.” While switching majors isn’t always the answer, having an open mind is.

For Kingwell, the return-on-investment model is just one extreme. It’s tempting, if one accepts the wrongness of the model, to sway to the other extreme– what Kingwell calls the luxury-good model: “where your studies are of no interest to anyone but yourself.” Just as it’s true, albeit narrow, that university often leads to better job prospects, it’s also true that the luxury-good model alone misses the full scope of university.

While we often find the things we learn interesting, and such interest contributes to our lives going well, that’s still not the whole story. The last piece of the puzzle is that university is a public good, and that beyond a stronger economy and more satisfied people, university done right makes us better citizens.

This is how it works. Democracy is built on the decisions of citizens who share some beliefs and disagree about others. The ability to sympathize and get along is fundamental to the success of a democracy– citizens must be civil if the democratic experiment is going to work. Citizens can disagree, and indeed they often do, but out of that public discussion comes democratic progress. At their best, universities provide us with the tools to make informed decisions about our own lives, and they also help us understand the lives of others, the decisions we didn’t make but might have in different circumstances.

It’s worthwhile to quote Kingwell at length on this point: “We actually need graduates more than ever precisely because democracy depends on a population of engaged, critical thinkers who have general knowledge of history, politics, culture, economics and science– citizens, not consumers, who see that there exist shared interests beyond their own desires.”

We become better citizens through education because education broadens the scope of our understanding of the world around us. I’ve had my own Krauss-type fundamental beliefs shaken– beliefs that before university I thought I would have forever. Similarly, I have been introduced to ideas I never would have considered before, and I’ve thought more seriously, I’m a philosophy major, after all, about societal issues like abortion, euthanasia, free speech, the value of an open press and, yes, what makes a life go well.

The irony, of course, is that had I not gone to university it’s unlikely that I would know what I missed. Telling high school students they will gain critical thinking and self-reflection– and that these are characteristics worth cultivating– is asking them to take a chance that you aren’t making it up. The discussion might go something like this:

Me: “Trust me, university will change your perspective on the world. You will be able to think more clearly, make informed decisions and you will also become a better citizen.”

Student: “Why should I believe you? Besides, can’t you just tell me the types of things I’ll learn and save me the four years and thousands of dollars? I want something elegant that can fit on a t-shirt, or something pithy that can be summed up in a newspaper article.”

Me: “It doesn’t work that way. It isn’t a quick process.”

Student: “But I don’t even know what I’m missing out on. Why take the chance?”

In case you’re thinking that my best strategy might be to say, “fine, take philosophy to get a good job,” knowing that Student will end up with all the benefits anyway, I don’t think that will work. Self-reflection, after all, isn’t something you can practice by accident.

Unintentional benefits, though, shouldn’t be forgotten. Students from elementary school to university all benefit from interacting with people who are unlike themselves in the same way they benefit from learning about diverse viewpoints. When I sit next to someone in class whose background is different from mine, I’m introduced to a way of life I might not have considered before.

My best strategy is probably to cite Kingwell, who makes three points about civility and public discourse. The first is what he calls the “democratic gamble”: well-informed citizens are more likely to make choices that are good for them, and we all have an interest in reasonable, sane and discursive citizens.

The second is that education is a public trust, which is why it’s (partly) paid for by the state. Education isn’t just good for the people who get degrees– the rest of society benefits both from the practical things university graduates produce (bridges that stay up, cures for diseases), but also less tangible things that come from thinking about what makes a life go well, what justice consists of and what society ought to look like.

Finally, education is one of our best solutions to the deterioration of public discourse. We can’t begin to consider important questions when politicians rely exclusively on character attacks; when media promote shouting matches instead of reasoned debate; and when people refuse to talk in the public sphere about ethics, justice and religion.

So what was I thinking? It doesn’t matter now, because I know that much of what I thought was wrong.

Leave a comment