Category Archives: Education

The Value of a College Education

My last post responded to some queries from student about the value of a college education. Chris Crawford added some additional insights on the topic in the comments section. I thought they earned a guest post. He adds 4 additional benefits of college to the ones I mentioned.

1. Social
Young people are intensely social; you learn from your peers as well as your professors. The great benefit of prestigious colleges is not that they have better teachers, but that they have better students. Plop yourself down amongst a lot of geniuses and you’ll find yourself working harder and learning more. Plop down amongst a group of dummies and you’ll get A’s without learning much.

2. Learning

Autodidacts learn what they think they need to learn. This works only if you already have a pretty good idea of the range of human knowledge. But how do you get that range of knowledge to start with? How do you learn to study concepts that you don’t even know exist? College shocks you with ideas that never dawned on you. I remember arguing with my professor once and he hit me with an idea that had never occurred to me. I was so stunned that I stuttered, “I have to go think about this.” and walked away. I learned an immense amount in that one moment.

I’ve had lots of ideas crammed down my throat in college that later became fundamental to my understanding. The concept of vector fields, divergence, and curl really confused me at first, but once I grasped them, they opened up new vistas for me.

3. The Hard Parts

When walking up a hill on a slant, we tend to drift downward; it’s difficult to keep heading upward. In the same way, when we study a subject, we tend toward the easy stuff. But all too often, you need to tackle the ugly stuff (often mathematical) in order to properly grasp the concepts. There are a zillion people who follow pop science and can talk all day about black holes, the Big Bang, galaxies, and stars. But their knowledge of this stuff is shallow. If you don’t understand the four equations of stellar structure, you can’t understand how a star works, why it can go nova, or how it can collapse into a black hole. If you don’t understand special relativity, including all those equations for time dilation, spatial compression, etc, you just can’t understand how a black hole works. In the world of physics and astronomy, the math IS the material.

4. Certification

Sorry, you don’t get to take a test to prove yourself. A college degree is a certificate that gets you in the door. It doesn’t get you a job, it gets you an interview. No employer has the time to be fair; they must sort through dozens of applicants quickly to zero in on the handful that they can afford to interview. Sure, it’s not fair, but in the dog-eat-dog world of business, you cannot afford to be exact; you have to settle for “good enough”. And throughout life, that degree will continue to give people a quick-and-dirty assessment of your intelligence.

I quit college with a Master of Science in Physics. My advisor urged me to stay on and get a doctorate, but I had realized that the academic world was not for me. I was far too curious to commit myself to the narrow existence of an academic who is the world’s leading authority on color centers in barium crystals. I wanted to learn everything, and, equipped with the solid education I had already gotten, I went on to learn much about computers (which I can now program in many languages), history, psychology, evolution, Erasmus of Rotterdam, economics (ugh!), climate change, and linguistics. Surprisingly, I haven’t followed physics or astronomy; I’ve already gotten a solid grasp of those. My personal library consists of two or three thousand books, all of which I have read at least once. Yes, I sometimes go back to an old book and re-read it; what you get out of a book depends on how much you know when you read it. If you want to see the range of my studies, go check out my website at http://www.erasmatazz.com. It has a surprising range of topics.

No, I never got the PhD, and I don’t regret it. I have learned so much more; at some point, breadth of education yields a greater intellectual benefit than depth of education.

But it has taken me over forty years to learn all this great stuff.

Should I Go To College?

Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable.” ~ Hannah Arendt

I received the following questions from a student in a recent university class that I taught. While adequate responses to these queries would constitute a dissertation length study, here are his questions and my brief responses.

1) What is the meaning of college?

The point of college is to help you become educated, which is good for individuals and the society of which they’re part.

2) I can learn anything on the internet, so why am I here?

Various methods of distance learning, most notably the vast store of online lectures from major universities, do serve to replace in-person attendance. I suppose the social elements of such attendance and the superior credentials of a university education offer something that online education can’t.

3) If I weren’t here, I wouldn’t be learning as much as I am because I would lack the proper discipline. So is the university now a disciplinary institution?

Your first statement provides another answer to your second question—you don’t have the discipline to be an autodidact. Your question assumes that there is something negative about the university providing a structure in which you can become educated. But that is a positive for you if you otherwise lack the discipline to learn. After all, they aren’t forcing you to attend and you are free to become self-educated.

4) If I had the self-discipline to learn on my own, what would be the point of going to university? Is it simply a qualifier for real-world employment? If so, why not just learn on my own and take a series of tests to prove my competency to employers?

If you can be an autodidact, great, except that perhaps you can’t and you won’t have the credentials you would otherwise have. So yes. universities today have been transformed in large part to technical schools that certify people for employment—business, accounting, nursing, computer science, etc. As for just taking the tests, that is an alternative model and in areas of great need—like computer science—there is a lot of this going on, and I have no problem with that model if education is just about technical training. I also don’t believe that the cost of college is justified for a lot of people.

But I don’t think that is the point of education, as I’ve argued in a recent blog post. Here is a brief excerpt.

What is the point of education? Is it merely to learn practical techniques? Consider a nurse or physician who has mastered all of the techniques necessary to practice their professions. Are they complete nurses or physicians? Most of us would say no; they need to understand their patients holistically, and this knowledge doesn’t come merely from their technical training. Thus, we do recognize the place in our education for philosophy, literature, poetry, psychology and history, even though they may not be practical. However, if material needs are all that matter, then the life of the mind may be irrelevant.

Now ask yourself: Is the point of lifting weights merely to push them against the force of gravity? No! In lifting weights we seek to transform our physiques, accomplish our goals, learn the valuable lesson that nothing comes without effort, and that life’s greatest joys accompany personal struggle and subsequent triumph.  And through this process our bodies are transformed. Analogously, education transforms us by increasing our awareness, diminishing our dogmatism, honing our critical thinking skills, and, at its best, helping us to live well, and to be happy and wise. Jiddu Krishnamurti made this case:

Why do we go through the struggle to be educated? Is it merely in order to pass some examinations and get a job? Or is it the function of education to prepare us while we are young to understand the whole process of life? Surely, life isn’t merely a job, an occupation: life is wide and profound, it’s a great mystery, a vast realm in which we function as human beings.

Advice on Taking a Philosophy Class

I’d like to share an anecdote from a previous philosophy class I taught many years ago. I also thought it might serve as advice for students who are taking their first class. Specifically, advice about what not to ask!

The class was introduction to philosophy and the book we used covered: the existence of god; the problem of evil; death and immortality; personal identity; mind-body problem, free will; knowledge; objectivity of ethics; why should we be moral; and the meaning of life. Now our memories are notoriously bad, so I can’t be sure of the details, but this is a reasonable reconstruction of what happened. There was one student who greeted each new chapter with a certain kind of question. Here’s a sampling:

“I just read the chapters about god and evil, and the book suggested that the arguments for god’s existence aren’t good and that evil counts against the existence of god. But we all know god exists, so what’s the point of those chapters?”

“I just read the chapter about death, and the book suggested that we may not be immortal. But we all know we are immortal, so what’s the point of the chapter?”

“I just read the chapter about mind/body, and the book suggested that we are entirely physical. But we all know that we have souls, so what’s the point of the chapter?”

“I just read the chapter about personal identity, and the book suggested that this idea is problematic. But we all know that identity is real, so what’s the point of the chapter?”

“I just read the chapter about free will, and the book suggested that there are problems with this idea. But we all know free will exists, so what’s the point of the chapter?”

“I just read the chapter about knowledge, and the book suggested that we may not know what knowledge is. But I know what I know, so what’s the point of the chapter?”

“I just read the chapter about ethics, and the book suggested that ethics might be subjective. But we all know that ethics is objective, so what’s the point of the chapter?”

“I just read the chapter about the meaning of life, and the book says this is a tough question. But the meaning of life is to love god, so what’s the point of the chapter?”

Now these weren’t the exact questions, but they capture the spirit of them. I won’t say much except that this person wasn’t philosophical, but he was arrogant. He pretended to know what the more educated are unsure of. I hope he’s not in politics.

Education & The Election

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, December 13, 2016.)

There is plenty of analysis on why Trump narrowly won the crucial states that gave him an electoral college victory—Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan—even though Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2.5 million votes.  But what was particularly striking was how, even if we control for race and income, educational levels best predict how people voted in the election. Of course this was expected, but I was shocked by how much a difference education made in terms of voter preference.

Nate Silver provides the overwhelming statistical evidence for the effect of education in “Education, Not Income, Predicted Who Would Vote For Trump.” In 48 of the 50 most educated counties in the country—almost all of which lean Democratic—Clinton did better than Obama did in 2012. And this holds true even in those educated counties than lean Republican. But in 47 of the 50 least educated counties in the country—almost all of which lean Republican— Clinton did worse than Obama had done in 2012. And this held true even in those less educated counties than lean Democratic.

Now you might think that income levels rather than education was more important. In reply Silver notes:

How do we know that education levels drove changes in support — as opposed to income levels, for example? It’s tricky because there’s a fairly strong correlation between income and education. Nonetheless, with the whole country to pick from, we can find some places where education levels are high but incomes are average or below average. If education is the key driver of changes in the electorate, we’d expect Clinton to hold steady or gain in these counties. If income matters more, we might see her numbers decline.

And what did Silver find? In high-education, medium-income white counties Clinton did better than Obama, while high-income, medium-educated white counties Clinton did worse than Obama. In addition, highly educated majority-minority counties shifted toward Clinton, while medium-educated majority-minority counties shifted toward Trump. Thus Silver concludes:

In short, it appears as though educational levels are the critical factor in predicting shifts in the vote between 2012 and 2016. You can come to that conclusion with a relatively simple analysis, like the one I’ve conducted above, or by using fancier methods. In a regression analysis at the county level, for instance, lower-income counties were no more likely to shift to Trump once you control for education levels. And although there’s more work to be done, these conclusions also appear to hold if you examine the data at a more granular level, like by precinct or among individual voters in panel surveys.

This conclusion was confirmed and expanded on by exit polls as described in Harry Enten’s piece, “Even Among The Wealthy, Education Predicts Trump Support.”  Exit polls of white voters show clearly that every bit of education means less support for Trump as can be seen here:

EDUCATION LEVEL CLINTON TRUMP TRUMP MARGIN
High school or less 27% 69% +42
Some college or associate degree 29 65 +36
College graduate 40 54 +14
Postgraduate study 54 41 -13
Trump did much worse among white voters with more education

SOURCE: ABC NEWS

Moreover,

TRUMP MARGIN
FAMILY INCOME NO COLLEGE DEGREE COLLEGE DEGREE OR MORE DIFFERENCE
<$30,000 +32 +2 -30
$30,000-$49,999 +38 -6 -44
$50,000-$99,999 +49 +9 -40
$100,000-$199,999 +34 +10 -24
$200,000-$249,999 -1
≥$250,000 -2
Education, not income, was the main driver of vote choice

(Because of a small sample size, there is no breakdown of the vote among non-college graduates earning $200,000 or greater. Based on the other crosstabs, it can be estimated that Trump won this group by about 40 percentage points.)

SOURCE: ABC NEWS

The conclusion here is straightforward. The more educated you are, even controlling for income and other factors, the more likely you were to vote for Clinton, and the less educated you were the more likely you were to vote for Trump.

Summary of David Foster Wallace’s Commencement Speech at Kenyon College

Below is a summary of and commentary on David Foster Wallace‘s (1962 – 2008) well-known commencement speech: “This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.” Some of its themes are: solipsism, loneliness, the monotony, education, and the importance of sympathy and conscious awareness.

(At the bottom of this page is an audio of the entire speech.)

Wallace begins with a parable:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

Wallace quickly explains that “The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” Against the story’s backdrop, he argues that the significance of a liberal arts education isn’t so much about learning how to think, but that it provides “the choice of what to think about.”

To explain this idea consider that most of us are close-minded, unaware of how imprisoned we are to the ideas and events that continually shape us—to the water all around us. In contrast a real education teaches us: “To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.”

In particular, a liberal arts education gives us tools to escape from our default settings, from the things we believe to be obvious, but which really aren’t. For education

… means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed …

If you’re truly educated you can “keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.” And to show why this is important Wallace informs the new graduates:

The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in day out” really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.

To explain this Wallace pictures of an average day in the near future for college graduates:

you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home. You haven’t had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping … So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.

This is the life that awaits young graduates. It will be their life “day after week after month after year.” But we can choose to be upset or frustrated about the store or the traffic, or we can reject this natural default setting. Instead we can see that all of this isn’t about us;  we can learn to see things differently. Perhaps those in traffic or at the store are as stressed as we are. Perhaps their lives are much worse than ours. It’s hard to see the world like this, but we can do it with effort. As Wallace poetically puts it:

If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Wallace’s point is that, “The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.  (This is what the Stoics advised too.) This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.” (Jean-Paul Sartre offered similar advice.) Worshipping money, power or physical beauty will not satisfy, for you will never have enough of them. These are the things the world encourages us to worship, what we worship by default. Yet

The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

Wallace concludes:

… the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: “This is water.” “This is water.” It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now. I wish you way more than luck.

I thank Wallace for reminding me of so much—that education is about choosing to escape our biological and cultural default settings; that we can only control our own minds, not the external world; and that real education is a lifelong process. I also thank him for reminding me that the meaning of life is found, if anywhere, in ordinary things. Finally, I would like to thank all the friends and teachers who helped provide me with a liberal arts education so long ago. It has not made me rich, but it has helped make me free.

And here is the speech in full.

Note – Our of respect for DFW’s memory, I did not discuss the few sentences in the middle of the speech relating to suicide.