Monday, August 30, 2010

University is Good

I get tired, angry, disappointed, and frustrated whenever I hear the tired old saw that a university education is a waste.

It goes like this: Forget science and the liberal arts (especially the liberal arts/humanities). Focus on practical, rather than intellectual, skills, forget knowledge, and train everyone to make and fix things. Take up a trade or become a health-care worker.

This mantra has been around for decades, is nonsense at best, and damaging/untrue at worst. The most recent article"Revalorizing the Trades"  is by Camille Paglia in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

A disclaimer is in order here.

I am not disparaging the trades/health fields or those who train and work in them. Trades and health workers are absolutely necessary. In many places, they are or will be in short supply. It's honest, interesting work, exactly what many people want, and the pay is good. But these vocations aren't for everyone, couldn't employ everybody, and would leave gaping holes in many other areas where we need people with a university education.

The argument for trades, especially, is so often based on incorrect assumptions. Paglia's article is no exception; she argues that "jobs, jobs, jobs" should be the primary concern for educators, but that there "is little flexibility in American higher education to allow for alternative career tracks" (alternative to the professions, in this case).

First, I would argue that a university education is training for a job, but not directly and narrowly as Paglia and others recommend. The proof is in the pudding; graduates get and keep a range of jobs for which they are uniquely suited. That proof puts the lie to the other assumption -  that a liberal arts education (and university education across the board) doesn't lead to jobs, jobs, jobs.

A university education equals jobs.  It leads to good jobs, portable jobs, interesting jobs, well-paying jobs, prestigious jobs, flexible jobs, famous jobs, creative jobs, secure jobs, necessary jobs - just about any kind of job many people could want - a Google search proves the point. Rice University (among many others)  has a document showing the myths and realities about jobs for liberal arts grads - it includes a list of fields in which grads find work (most are not in the professions).

So what exactly is the problem?

The economy is one reason. University is expensive. Job loss is a huge concern right now.

Also, nurses, electricians, carpenters who train specifically for their jobs and then find them are fairly easy to track. Politicians and administrators can point to their successes much more easily, and the concept is simpler to grasp: electrical training = electrical-field job. Easy.

People with university degrees are much harder to track in the job market, and their career paths don't translate easily to flip-chart simplicity. History major =President of the United States (Kennedy).

It's harder to track the psychology major who, ten years later, has become a tv hockey producer, or the religious studies major who is now the director of business and policy for a major tv network. The liberal arts major who works for the defence department, is CEO of a huge company, an astronaut, policy manual writer for the UN, international coordinator for a major annual charity event.

If every interesting, important, and lucrative job had a direct educational path and an accrediting body, life would be simpler. Train for job X; get job X. But it doesn't always work that way.

Plus, a university education is a value-added endeavour. Graduates are more than trained employees. Graduates form the educated citizenry that allows democracy to flourish, keeps zealots in check, and the arts, science, law, medicine flourishing. They are trained to analyze, criticize, theorize, and question.

University graduates are not only employable, they are necessary to the efficient and progressive functioning of society. The biggest expense would be not to have enough of them.


Hels said...

Chris, I agree with you that there is absolutely nothing wrong with going into the trades, manufacturing, farming or any other productive work. As long as the training is good and the apprenticeships are well supervised (not just cheap labour).

But Paglia is being just too modest. A university degree has given her (and all of us) the ability to:
1. have a good knowledge of the canon of each academic area,
2. do top quality research,
3. write reports and journal articles coherently,
4. adopt science-based evidence for best practice in the subject, and
5. be verbally confident in presenting material and influencing decision-makings, not mumbling morons with bad grammar.

ChrisJ said...


Yes, I think she is being somewhat disingenuous, biting the hand that feeds her. She also sees the humanities as mired in problems, but surely fixing problems is better than throwing out the baby with the bathwater.(My education doesn't seem to put any curb on my use of cliches!)

Sole Sister Salma said...

I agree with, if you deon't learn one thing, you should graduate from university with an open mind (try things...take the road less traveled), and that's a million times better than a lot of other things.

ChrisJ said...


An open mind - exactly. A university education gives a person much more than just a lot of facts; it alters how one thinks.

Owen Gray said...

I concur enthusiastically. Our son finished high school and said, "The only reason I can think of to go to university is to make you happy."

Instead, he was going to be a rock star. But until stardom arrived, he waited tables, washed dishes and changed motor oil -- discovering, in the process, that he couldn't pay the bills.

Last week he received his M.A. in English. He's currently working two jobs to pay the bills. But he can see the future -- and it looks much better from where he is now than it did from the pit of a Jiffy Lube.

ChrisJ said...


Congratulations to your son - and to mom and dad who helped him get there.

The Jiffy Lube pit can be a deep one and hard to leave. A trade would be much better than that, but the university education opens more doors (and more minds).

askcherlock said...

Of all the people I know who went to a university, including me, few made careers in their major. My degree was in teaching high school Speech and English. After the first year, I knew I didn't have 'the calling.' But having the degree enabled me to enter fields that I did love and it opened doors of vast possibilities. That is one of the important aspects of higher education: the ability to have choices.

ChrisJ said...


Exactly. The sixty-year-old electrician with arthritis doesn't have much choice but to keep pulling cable.

Judie said...

If ANYONE ever LEARNS ANYTHING in university, it should be to keep an OPEN MIND!!!! There is WAY TOO LITTLE openmindedness in the world today.

I majored in English in college, but now I am a working artist. My major has served me well, because I can write a good bio in order to entice people to buy my work.

The people who think they don't need an education are probably the people who need it the most.

I agree with Hels, et al.

I also agree with Cher, and not just because she is my sister.

ChrisJ said...

It does seem that the people who disparage a university education could benefit greatly from one!

I bet, also, that your English degree has given you a depth of understanding about lots of things that contributes to your work as an artist beyond just writing a good bio.

Judie said...

I only found out last year that my crazy brother never graduated from high school. This is one of the many family secrets that was kept from me. He then went on to try to persuade his two brilliant children that they did not need to go to college, because HE didn't. My sister-in-law's NEW AND BETTER husband paid for them to go, and they have now seriously eclipsed their father IN SO MANY WAYS!

On the other hand, my seriously mentally ill sister (now deceased) had two boys who had the best education money could buy, and neither one has accomplished anything worthwhile.

It's not enough to just go, you have to have a determination to accomplish something at the same time.

ChrisJ said...


I was laughing at the NEW AND BETTER husband!

Personality counts for a lot in what you do with what you've got.

Pearl said...

In my mind a college is for jobs, market skills, information for a particular outcomes. University is for becoming educated in the classical sense -- oriented to philosophy, the larger world, history, logic and reasoning. People should do both back to back starting at 14 or 15.

ChrisJ said...


More and more people are doing both; it's not a bad idea.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, that was extremely valuable and interesting...I will be back again to read more on this topic.

Trulyfool said...


'Practical' education presumes we actually know what we need.

The university is designed for those who've shown interest and capacity to take on theoretical tasks, to lunge in creative ways, to construct a 'vision'.

To be wrong, to admit it, to forge ahead, to recognize shortcomings, to gain ongoing nuance.

An early thing I teach students is to realize that 'practical' things will take care of themselves -- on the job, ad hoc, through custom and word-of-mouth.

What's special about 'higher ed' is its reach, its (relative) dispassion, its intent to deepen -- not speed up -- thought and feeling.

ChrisJ said...