I’m ambivalent about the value of a college education. I think some people are invited, persuaded, or seduced to expend valuable time and resources to pursue an education for which they are not well suited. In some of the discussions Over There, I sometimes err by digging into my heels without really acknowledging how complex the problem is and how difficult it is to formulate or implement a solution. The whole exercise becomes a cultural signaling thing where I get upset because others strike me as snobs and where others get upset because I strike them as a philistine.

Those discussions sometimes get tied up in discussions over what to study. On one side, not only should most people go to college or at least give college a try, they should study the liberal arts instead of, say, business or STEM fields. On another side, it’s wrong to encourage or support students in studying a discipline that has so little obvious or direct payoff. And there are other “sides” and positions between them. I usually come down on the side that liberal arts aren’t everything and we should be wary of the promises we make to students who consider studying them.

And yet I studied liberal arts as an undergrad and am grateful for having done so. I was introduced to ideas and books and people I would likely never have encountered had I not gone to college. I gained a lot of social and cultural literacy I would not otherwise have had. Whatever challenges my writing still has, it’s still a lot better thanks to the constant writing practice I got in college. And although my own career prospects post-BA were pretty weak–these amounted to service jobs for which a high school diploma was the only formal degree required–I still retained the ability to enjoy engaging ideas and books at a level I would not have before. It’s not true that “education is the one thing they can’t take away from you” (if anything because Alzheimer’s runs in my family), but as far as goods go, my liberal arts education is for me a very durable good indeed.

And I obtained all this without debt. That happy result was due in part to my willingness to work in high school and save up money and to work in college while studying (but I didn’t work during my freshman year). It was also due to my parents’ relative affluence. I didn’t have to pay them rent or contribute to the family finances while in high school or college, and in the back of my head I knew they would help me if my finances got bad. I also knew I could live with them after college until I got on my feet, so finding a gainful job right away wasn’t as pressing.

But my debt-free education was also due to state subsidies. Cibolia State University gave me scholarships (probably supplied by taxpayer money, but I don’t know). Those paid for most of my tuition, leaving me responsible only for room and board. And one reason those scholarships were sufficient to pay my tuition was because the state limited the rate the university could charge.

I sometimes fear my ambivalence about college and the liberal arts elides the fact that I have benefited immensely, at little financial cost to myself, from that which I criticize. Maybe that’s not relevant for what our country’s higher education policy should be. But I have gotten a certain benefit, and there’s something not entirely right about saying others shouldn’t, or saying it should be more expensive or riskier for them to do so. It’s not entirely wrong, but not entirely right.


Category: School

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19 Responses to I got mine

  1. James K says:

    As someone who has more of a technically-focused degree, I’m more of a fan of the Liberal Arts in principle than in practice. I support the concept of a education programme that leads to a broadly-educated citizenry, but the traditional list of Liberal Arts subjects looks optimised to be impressive to 19th Century aristocrats, not to be useful to the citizens of a 21st Century democracy.

    • Yeah, I hedge on that, too, although my sensibilities are probably closer to what you’d see as the 19th century than the 21st.

    • Jhanley says:

      ” the traditional list of Liberal Arts subjects looks optimised to be impressive to 19th Century aristocrats.”

      I tend to agree, even though I tend to like those subjects, too. The institutional structure of most colleges and universities, and the commitment of faculty to their particular disciplines, are obstacles to change, unfortunately.

      I’ve given a small amount of thought to what ought to be the necessary foundations for a liberal arts education in this era. I haven’t gone very far, but here are a couple courses I think should be mandatory.

      1. Probability. This should be an intro class, not requiring heavy mathematics, that would teach students that the world is probabilistic and would help to inoculate them against panic about low probability events (like plane crashes and terrorist attacks).

      2. Logic in Rhetoric. This class would teach them about logical fallacies commonly used in argument, how to spot them, and how to construct an argument that doesn’t rely on them.

      I’m tempted to add a course in public choice theory, but that might be a drift into the ideological zone.

      • fillyjonk says:

        Heh….I wonder if the state lottery boards would want a populace that is more-informed about probability? (I have an old “Bizarro” cartoon on my office door – I teach stats – on that topic).

        A logic and rhetoric class would also be an excellent idea. I could see those as being Gen Ed type classes that everyone takes, though I’m not sure what they’d replace.

        I also get discouraged at how lacking in writing skills some students are, despite required Comp I and Comp II. I wonder if maybe specific majors should offer writing classes tailored to their major – I know I took an undergraduate Writing for the Biological Sciences class that was pretty rigorous and that helped me, and also as a grad student took a course in honing one’s writing and presentation skills.

        I don’t know about Lit classes and the like; I think I’ve gotten more out of the reading I’ve done as an independent adult than the fast, cramped reading I had to do for Great Books. (300 pages of Plato in a week is not going to lead to people remembering it, even people who were good students gifted with strong memories….)

        • I agree about the need for more writing beyond the required comp classes (and I’m ambivalent about comp classes themselves….I never liked them as a student).

          I think there’s a place for studying literature, although not in the rushed “great books” format you had to suffer through. The historian in me would like students to sample as many historical periods as possible to give them a “flavor” of each of the (impossibly many) time periods and places. That’s probably asking too much for a general ed requirement.

          When pressed to justify requiring at least some literature (and I know James K. is skeptical on its value), I usually do a poor job, and have to fall back on ancillary skills that could also be learned elsewhere and not exclusively from literature: learning to read critically, learning to write thoughtfully, gaining the cultural capital that sometimes (but maybe not often) counts for something in the non-academic world.

      • I think courses in probability and logic in rhetoric are fine ideas.

        But is it true that the world *is* probabilistic? I can certainly see the value in learning *in what ways* it is, and in learning what the probabilistic way of looking at things is like, and being able to look at things that way…..but does it assume to much to insist that it is so?

        • oscar.gordon says:

          It’s probabilistic in the sense that nothing is 100% certain. Many things are 99.999999999% certain, but an awful lot of things are actually in the lower to mid 90’s% certain, and there is quite a bit that falls well below that.

          And that is before we even get into relative probabilities, etc. (e.g. having a gun in the house is (SWAG here) 42% more likely to result in a friend or family member getting shot, but when the chance of getting shot when there isn’t a gun in the home is 0.001%, then 42x means the chance jumped to 0.042%).

        • fillyjonk says:

          The probability course will, if nothing else, maybe help people hone their BS detectors – as per oscar’s example.

          Probability can also be kind of fun and there are a lot of good “stories” you can tell, like the one about the Belgian euro being contested as a fair coin (for coin flips before soccer matches) and how that was tested.

        • Michael Cain says:

          It’s probabilistic in the sense that nothing is 100% certain.

          I remember a physics prof remarking once that there’s nothing to stop all the air molecules in the lecture hall from flying out the doors and leaving us all to suffocate — it’s just extremely unlikely.

        • Thanks, all. It’s probably mostly a function of me not understanding probabilism (or whatever it’s called).

        • Michael Cain says:

          When I was in college, one of my favorite statistical bar beer bets went like this: “We’ll go around and you pick 30 people at random, and we’ll ask them their birthday. I’ll bet that there will be some two people with the same birthday (month/day, not year) in that group.”

          Sounds like a sure thing bet for you, right? But I’ll win 70% of the time.

  2. Oscar Gordon says:

    Liberal arts degrees are great, my wife has one (BA History). She also has the MLIS and works for a corporate library, and has the golden handcuffs.

    Thing about Liberal Arts degrees (& I’ve said this before) is marketing. A BA is great if you already have a solid career network in place, such that once you have the BA, Uncle Joe will hire you and give you a nice job at his firm. If you don’t have an Uncle Joe, then you have to build that network while in school, you have to market the hell out of yourself, or be ready to pursue a graduate degree.

    Colleges, especially Liberal Arts programs, are very bad at helping their students learn how to market themselves in a very technical world. There is this idea that the education itself is a valuable commodity. But it isn’t. The person is.

    It’s like hiring a driver. If I’m hiring a driver, the kind of car the driver prefers to drive is an important consideration (if I’m paying to be driving about, riding in the back of an Audi or Mercedes is much better than a Corolla), but the important thing is the person behind the wheel. What kind of training do they have? Experience? Accidents? If I’m being chased by bad people, can I rely on the driver to get me away from them?

    The car is nice, the driver is invaluable.

  3. Mike Hunt Ray Rice says:

    I think it is important to realize that the vast majority of students don’t go to college for the education.

    Once we, as a society, realize this, then we can come up better educational policy.

    This isn’t a new phenomenon. The old saw about not letting college interfere with your education became an old saw for a reason.

    • Oscar Gordon says:

      I agree with Mike, although I’ll add that while many are not going for an education, a lot of those do stay for one, or go back for one.

  4. Michael Cain says:

    Disclosure: I have an MS in an obscure technical field, and an MA in a field that is not so much of either. I’m old enough that I’ve been listening to this argument for decades. Here’s my two cents.

    “College” changed when the big public and private schools decided to add engineering to the traditional things. Exposure to the liberal arts had survived med and law because both were separate post-bachelors special schools producing relatively small numbers of licensed professionals (might need to drop “relatively” for law these days). There are states where you need a professional license to hang out a shingle as a PE, but that’s a matter of testing and doesn’t require a post-bachelors degree. Corporate America, though, discovered that what they really needed in the 20th century was much larger numbers of unlicensed but competent engineers to do internal work. “Competent” usually takes four-five years with minimal outside courses, aside from some over in the math and hard sciences departments.

    So, the big schools are doing at least three distinct things: (1) “college” in the traditional sense of getting a particular kind of education; (2) specialized versions of that education in anticipation of going on to professional schools (pre-med, pre-law); and (3) trade school for some very complex trades. Complaining that colleges shouldn’t have taken on that last one is a waste of time — it’s too big a pot of money to ignore. Complaining that those students should simultaneously get a traditional college education is a waste of time — students will vote with their feet if a school tries to stretch the engineering program to five-six years so the EEs have some history. Complaining that engineers didn’t pursue the same professional path the law and medicine did is a waste of time — that boat sailed long ago. I’m old enough to remember when some state legislatures brought up the subject of requiring a license in order to write code (software engineering). That went nowhere fast when those states’ entire tech sector showed up to testify that such would create an enormous shortfall of developers and the companies would be leaving the state promptly.

    Don’t confuse the things universities are doing. Don’t try to force students in either side of things to conform to the other side’s notion of what’s proper. Seriously — I don’t notice the profs who write in various places that the engineering students desperately need history and philosophy making the argument that historians should take two or three extra semesters to get their degree in order to pick up introductions to civil and electrical engineering (plus the math and hard sciences necessary).

    I applaud people who know what they want and get a liberal arts degree, but I do agree with what I think Gabriel is saying and they should know that it’s not trade school. I applaud engineers who take advantage of being at a university that includes liberal arts to get exposed to those, but think everyone should recognize that that’s an option for people who are in a trade school.

    • oscar.gordon says:

      The bit about Universities not having engineering schools is interesting. I never thought about it, but I guess it would explain places like The Milwaukee School of Engineering. I actually turned down MSOE because I thought the program was too rigorous without any kind of non-STEM mental stimulation.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful answer, Michael. I do think a little bit of mutual understanding and forbearing from judging others could go a long way. When I was in college, I took tested out of all my required math classes and took the bare minimum of “lab sciences” required and then pretty much focused on what I liked.

      I hadn’t even really thought of the historical angle you brought up. I do wonder how that jives with business schools and schools-within-colleges.

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