Not everyone needs to go to college. I can make that statement now that my kids are finished and their tuition is paid off, but I would believe it if they were younger.
The old slogan is true: “To get a good job, get a good education.” But, if the purpose of an education is to qualify for gainful employment, then there are all sorts of ways to build your first resumé that do not include college or university.
Except that isn’t the purpose. Yes, work is important and a job is essential to earn the money you need to live on. The purpose of education, however, is to provide access to the world beyond your immediate experience.
You may be interested in space exploration, glassblowing, macroeconomics, video gaming or merchandising. But if all you learn in whatever education you pursue is how to swap out a carburetor or analyze 18th-century European literature, you have dug yourself a hole from which you will never escape.
Education is not about imparting information. It is about developing the ability to think.
Task-oriented training, no matter how sophisticated, is mechanical. Sooner or later, the component parts of any task can and will be replicated without you.
My math skills were atrocious in high school, but most of what I could not assimilate wound up contained in a Texas Instruments calculator when my math-savvy daughter took calculus. Today, that original hand-held unit is as relevant as a protractor— even if both still work.
The ability to think and to think critically is essential to a life of meaning. And the premium that we have put on an education that extends beyond the practical is really what distinguishes us from other forms of life.
I know, you thought it was the opposable thumb, language or symbolic acts, but it’s not. We human beings are the only creatures who can communicate things beyond our own experience.
History, literature, representational art, poetry, liturgical music, philosophy, anthropology, sociology—all those things your parents wondered what was worth tens of thousands of dollars in tuition and fees— are the stuff that makes us unique among the species.
Chimps can make tools, penguins mate for life, bees give directions. But no chimp can make the tool first made by his great-grandfather. No penguin can tell the story of her grandmother’s crossing of the Arctic Ocean. No bee knows the way to San Jose unless it lives there already.
But I bet that as you read these last few sentences, you could imagine them all—as well as the absurdity of it (except in a cartoon created by someone with a liberal arts education). That’s why I agree with Mary Pat McPherson who said, “One purpose of a liberal arts education is to make your head space a more interesting place to live inside of for the rest of your life.”
Our minds yearn to be occupied. That’s different from being distracted.
We want to be interested, not bored. We want flights of fancy, not only cold, hard facts. We want to consider things that are wrong and figure out if, how and why. That’s what a liberal arts education does for you.
There are some folks in every generation, including ours, who consider those things dispensable or even a waste of time. They don’t want others to consider what makes one man believe he is a woman and another be convinced he is a man.
They don’t want children to admire the human form as sculpted by a long-dead artist because it displays the same body parts they see each night in the bathtub. They don’t want libraries that carry books about changing norms or lyrics that reflect uncomfortable cultural ideas or honest reappraisals of accepted ideas that are holding back the continued progress those ideas initiated.
Ask them if they are opposed to thinking and they will laugh. But the fact is, they are just opposed to thinking about certain things they don’t want to think about.
But those are the things that make the world a more interesting place to live and your head a place worth living inside for the rest of your life.
You don’t have to go to college to get a liberal arts education. But neither should you go there to avoid one. Feed your head.
Editor’s Note: November 13-19 is American Education Week.