On cynics and our educational system

16 Feb

All week I’ve been thinking of Oscar Wilde’s famous quotation, “a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” During my youth, I never really understood this as I do now, but it seems particularly apt in light of recent debates and discussions about the value of a higher education degree in the humanities (which readers of this blog know is an issue of great interest to me).

Starting with President Obama’s comment about vocational school preparing students for a higher income than majoring in art history at a university, there were subsequent reports on NPR that argued that humanities majors do fine economically (especially as compared to non-college grads), and a Pew study demonstrated that a college degree is still the best predictor of higher income, regardless of major.  The Pew study in particular equated “value” with “usefulness” in the job market and the workplace.

“Value” of education cannot be measured by income level or limited to usefulness in the ability to earn a salary.  Once we’ve become that cynical, then we have lost sight of what education is really good for – the eradication of ignorance, our ability to improve the quality and sustainability of life for all beings, learning about who we are from history, and understanding ways of looking at the world that enable us to live and get along with others without killing them, among other things.  Sometimes it’s just about the ability to ask deeper questions about our existence, or to appreciate more the artistic and ethical dimension of our lives.

But the point is that as long as the discussion focuses on future income as the measure of the value of an education, then we are accepting the line of thinking and terms of the debate promoted by the Reagan administration, which is that justification can be reduced to lower cost to taxpayers and a higher monetary return for the individual. In short, greater profits.  This is what the capitalist system has transformed into, and not one President since then has challenged this concept.  Is the profit motive, either on campus or in the larger world, a relevant guiding principle for our educational system?

This thinking displays the utter cynicism of Reagan and his followers, because they know the price of an education (and the price of its rewards), but they haven’t a clue about what the value of education really is – or if they do suspect, they are afraid of the challenges that educational system provides to the world order of corporate power.  This is why the Governor of North Carolina, Pat McCrory, has argued that state aid for higher education should only go to those fields that produce graduates ready for jobs in the workforce.

President Obama’s remark about art history as a major is disappointing on a number of different levels.  As I posted on my Facebook page, there are three senses in which his comments are disturbing.  First, American higher education has been transformed into an industry that trains people to fill jobs and make profits, while the all-important qualities of ethics, conscience, questioning, imagination, innovation, and sustainability are seen as frills or luxuries for the very elite or privileged, but they don’t matter ultimately. Well, they do. The planet is at risk from the idea that profit generation has no consequences. This began with Reagan when he was Governor of California, taking on the University of California system, and four decades or so later, only the most elite of higher education students can have the opportunity to think about these issues and train to be leaders among the decision-making classes.

Second, maybe if more people in this current administration had studied the humanities, this administration wouldn’t show such a stunning lack of imagination in actually bringing about the progressive changes they promised.

And third, this increasingly common argument, which I’ve heard from liberals as well as conservatives, that college “may not be” for everybody, is disingenuous, especially in light of massive federal and state cuts to education over the past 30 years. It’s as if we’re saying, well, don’t feel there’s an injustice in the fact that your high school doesn’t prepare you to attend college (and study humanities), you can do even better with this consolation prize, and you’ll earn big money, too!  It’s so patronizing for anyone with an Ivy League graduate degree to tell high school kids they should be as satisfied with a trade when they haven’t had the real opportunity to get into fields where they become the creative leaders or, let’s face it, the CEOs or the policy-makers. If you don’t believe me, then ask yourself what would have happened if he had made this speech at a fancy private school.

Job-readiness and the profit motive will do nothing to prevent nuclear annihilation (from bombs or reactor disasters) or global warming that threatens to make Earth uninhabitable.   Studying scientific research and human values in the context of one another is of far more value in safeguarding our long-term future.  We study to grow rich at our peril.

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