Wednesday, June 21, 2006
(12:24 PM) | Adam Kotsko:
Education as UselessThe single biggest error in discussing education is the assumption that the purpose of education is to prepare people for jobs. Training for particular lines of work is always necessary and sometimes needs to take place in formalized ways, but for most jobs, on-the-job training is the only realistic possibility. The attempt to turn universities into sites of credentialization leads not only to the corruption of the university, but also to the corruption of the mechanisms of professional advancement. For instance, my uncle has decades of managerial experience, but has repeatedly been held back professionally by his lack of proper degrees. It's ludicrous to assume that someone can step in and start doing a job -- and indeed, presumably do it better than someone who has long experience in doing it -- simply by virtue of having attained a degree. The attempt to institute a formalized meritocracy based on university-mediated credentials simply introduces a fresh layer of arbitrarity and injustice to an increasingly irrational job market.
One might be glad for this in that it provides a broader demand for university education, but as stated above, it actually ends up corrupting the university system. First of all, it presents education as a phase to be gotten through and left behind -- a technicality that must be endured. Thus, genuine education comes to be seen as an unfair imposition, an attempt to cheat someone out of a credential for which they are, after all, paying a lot of money. The students' pre-existing views must be "respected," which comes to mean leaving them basically intact. Instead of a globally competent teacher, the instructor is viewed as a very narrowly focussed expert whose forays outside of her area are seen as in a way more illegitimate than the expression of an opinion by a person on the street. Increasing reliance on disposable adjuncts or on graduate students further undermines the student-teacher relationship, as the students come to understand that their teacher "isn't even a real professor."
What is needed is an insistence on the profound pointlessness of education -- that is, on education as an end in itself. We as a culture are not averse to pointless activities -- we gladly pay money to play video games, watch television and movies, listen to music, browse the Internet, sit idly at bars talking with friends. Very few of us feel that such things make us better citizens, better prepare us for jobs, etc., and yet we pour huge amounts of money into them, simply based on their inherent satisfaction. Rigorous intellectual labor is simply satisfying, in itself. We should be willing to pay for it based solely on that, without recourse to some further goal.
Our goal-orientation is precisely what produces the profound sense of boredom in our society as a whole. Nothing (aside from the entertainment media) is taken to be valuable in itself, but only in terms of some future payoff -- yet the future payoff never comes. For instance, with education: most people fully expect at best to tolerate and at worst to actively hate the jobs their college degree will supposedly enable them to attain, and that expectation is very often fulfilled. Thus the job itself becomes a means to the end of providing for one's children -- but the normative expectation for family life is an endless shuttling from activity to activity... all directed at the end of getting into a good college, so that the children can perpetuate the cycle.
Why not cut it off at one of the early phases? Why not say that education is preparing people for education, for the enjoyment of satisfactions that will continue throughout one's lifetime, for a life of learning and teaching? Then the answer to the perennial idiotic question of "When am I ever going to use this?" will be simple: "You won't use it; you'll enjoy it."