If Education is a Commodity … At Least Get the Facts Straight!

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Last week, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette published an opinion piece I wrote regarding liberal education. Since so many of the readers of this blog do not read the Worcester newspaper, I thought I would share it with you.

As always, your comments are welcome!

If Education is a Commodity … At Least Get the Facts Straight!

A few weeks ago, President Obama made headlines when he said, “I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree….I’m just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need." (January 30, 2014).

In this case, the President has widespread bi-partisan support. Similar disdain for majors in the liberal arts has been expressed by Mitt Romney, former Governor of Massachusetts and Republican presidential nominee, Rick Scott, Republican Governor of Florida, and Patrick McCrory, Republican Governor of North Carolina.

In every one of these cases, and somewhat prevalent throughout the current criticism of higher education by government and the media, a college degree is unfortunately being reduced to a commodity. It is being narrowly defined as a means to an end … a good job … higher pay. I hope all of our graduates find the employment of their choice and earn a living wage. But this narrow perspective both demeans the value of education and is factually incorrect.

The value of liberal education centers on the balance between open, free, and critical inquiry and research dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and learning. A college education provides intellectual hospitality through which we value and celebrate the compassionate community of learners, who passionately search for truth, in order to transform society and ourselves.

The goal of liberal education is to develop an understanding and appreciation for culture and society, our responsibilities as citizens of the world, and the value of lifelong learning. Quality liberal education is marked by the development of critical thinking and analytical skills, the ability to communicate effectively, and the formation of moral reasoning, value development, and decision-making. Do we need any more evidence of the critical need for values, morality and leadership in our society?

But even if you do not share this philosophy, there is ample evidence that a liberal arts degree does, in fact, result in high levels of employment and increased earning. A recent study entitled, “How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment,” analyzes U.S. Census data from 2010 and 2011.

The report reveals that immediately after earning their four-year degree, majors in the humanities and the social sciences earn more on average than those who majored in science and mathematics, but less than other pre-professional degree programs. However, by the time they reach their peak earning ages, those graduates with social science and humanities degrees earn more annually than others with professional and pre-professional degrees. The report also reveals that those who earn a graduate degree outpace their less educated peers. Imagine that … more education contributes to high employment and increased earnings.

Despite the rhetoric from politicians, pundits and self-proclaimed experts, there is a high correlation between higher education and success … in whatever way you choose to define success.

In preparing his remarks, President Obama apparently neglected to read the May 2011 study conducted by the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project. With responses from over 13,500 arts majors from 154 institutions, over 90% were employed in the position of their choice and a vast majority reported high levels of satisfaction with their careers. Even those who did not pursue an arts related career expressed the value their degree had for both their lives and their careers.

Perhaps President Obama had a negative experience as an undergraduate. His alma mater, Columbia University, is one of the few institutions in America that requires all students to study art history. Of course, higher education served him well with both a bachelor’s and a law degree.

In the end, there is no denying that a college degree is expensive and not always the ticket to immediate success. It is also true that many students graduate with significant debt. But it seems to me that it is much more important that young people study what they love, pursue their dreams and be made aware that whatever program of study, their degree will provide a quality of life both personally and professionally that will bring satisfaction and fulfillment. After all, isn’t “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” fundamental to the American dream? I think I studied that in a social science class I took at college!

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Guest Thursday, 31 July 2014