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Viewpoint: Back to School

What’s the Point of a College Education?

By Janet D. Stemwedel

I have very strong feelings about what the point of a college education should be. First and foremost: a college education is not job training.

I’m not saying you should be unemployable when you graduate. But getting some specific set of facts or skills that prepares you for a particular job in a particular setting is a very narrow kind of education. It’s the kind of education that you might be able to get in 18 months or less at a technical institute, or even in your first month on the job. If all you need is a particular “skill set,” why slog through 4 (or 5, or 6, or 7, ...) years to get a bachelor’s degree? Why go through that huge checklist of General Education courses that have no obvious connection to your intended career? Why, for that matter, complete all those major requirements that have no obvious connection to your intended career? Because everyone's doing it?

If all we gave you was job training, you'd be in a tough spot. Specific jobs can change quite a lot. Software engineers use different programming languages, and deal with different platforms, than they did only a few years ago. Scientists work with new techniques against the background of new discoveries. Teachers have to deal with constantly changing state standards (and the attendant standardized tests) and funding priorities. Chances are the specific job-related facts with which you walk out of here will be obsolete before you've paid off your student loans.

More than that, the economy can change rather drastically. Back when I graduated from college, a degree in computer science was an instant ticket to the good life. Start-ups were falling over each other to snatch up anyone who could write code. Twenty-two year olds were driving fancy cars and eating lunch at swanky restaurants, or playing ping-pong in the office while trying to work out in their heads how much their stock options were worth.

Boom, meet Bust. When the bubble burst, a solid education in computer science was no kind of guarantee that you'd be able to work as a programmer. Or that you'd be able to avoid living on your parents’ couch.

A college degree that is just about training for a particular career in a particular field is a gigantic gamble. It leaves you vulnerable to changes large and small. I want a college education to give you something better. What is valuable about a college education is not something a lousy economic cycle can take away.

Back when the dot-com bubble was a-poppin’, I was teaching Boethius. (Anucius Manlius Severinus Boethius, c. 480 - c. 526. You were thinking of someone else?)

So, Boethius was this big-time Roman patrician who was Master of the Offices for King Theodoric, until he was accused of treason and magic, tossed in jail, tortured, and killed in a particularly nasty way. Before his execution, he had a lot of time to mope. Indeed, how could he avoid wallowing in just how far he had fallen from having it all? While in prison, Boethius wrote Consolations of Philosophy, an imagined dialogue between himself and Lady Philosophy. Here's a synopsis:

Boethius: Boy, it really sucks to be me. I had everything and now I have nothing.

Lady Philosophy: Dude, snap out of it. The stuff that really matters is the stuff that even a sudden change of fortune can't take from you.

A job is nice. So is political power, a fancy chariot, hangers-on. But you can have all these things and still not be happy or fulfilled. And, if your happiness depends on having such things, you're pretty vulnerable to sudden reversals.

So how can a human find fulfillment that isn't all about having lots of stuff, or a high-paying job, or a top-rated sit-com? What do you have that's really yours? What is the piece of your life that no one can take away?

You have your mind. You have the ability to think about things, to experience the world, to decide what matters to you and how you want to pursue it. You have your sense of curiosity and wonder when you encounter something new and unexpected, and your sense of satisfaction when you figure something out. You have the power to imagine ways the world could be different. You even have the ability (the responsibility?) to try to make the world different.

This is what I think a college education should give you: lots of hands-on experience using your mind so you know different ways you can think about things and you start to figure out what you care about.

Yes, you may encounter a lot of facts in your college education, but the real value of those facts is that they give you experience thinking about them in different ways. What you come away with is the ability to think about different facts out there in the “real world.” You get the ability to use the facts you encounter to draw your own conclusions rather than having to take someone else's word for it. (The thing about those other people who will just tell you what you should think? Sometimes they lie.)

Thinking is hard. It requires a lot more effort than floating through the world on auto-pilot. But once you get started, it's more addictive than potato chips. Thinking is fun. Even a little slice of a life of the mind (maybe reading a novel on the bus every morning) can counteract a fair bit of drudgery (like the job you’re riding that bus to get to). The joe-job is sometimes unavoidable; you've got to eat. But nourishing your mind gives you something better than just biological existence.

A college education can do an awful lot to help you survive the job market. People who are good at thinking and who like to learn can be very adaptable in a changing economy. But a really good college education prepares you for life. It helps give you the mental tools to live a life that matters to you.

Janet D. Stemwedel is an assistant professor of philosophy at San Jose State University. She writes a blog called Adventures in Ethics and Science (http://scienceblogs.com/ethicsandscience ). Before becoming a philosopher, she earned a Ph.D. in physical chemistry.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
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