Education. It’s not about ROI.

“All this book learning is a waste of time. What the hell are you doing that is going to put a single dollar in your pocket, tell me that.”

My stepfather had little respect for education, as evidenced by the comment above. I had little respect for him but was deeply troubled by his question. The value of education has always been self-evident to me. Increasingly, though, we hear discussion of whether it is better to drop out of college to start our first business, following in the steps of Mark Zuckerberg.  If you must go through the drudgery of college, the pundits advise, then for God’s sake focus on something useful, something that will allow you to make boatloads of money.

The value of a college education has been reduced to a discussion of its return on investment (ROI). What kind of job will you get? How much will you earn? When will you pay off your student loans and begin turning a profit?

While these are valid concerns to address, we’ve made a major error when we reduce the value of college education to that of a vocational-technical school.

We now focus exclusively on the utilitarian aspect of education, overlooking what used to be its core value, namely a “broad exposure to the outlines of knowledge for its own sake, rather than to acquire skills to practice a trade or do a job” as noted by Fareed Zakaria in his commencement speech to Sarah Lawrence College.

Zakaria notes contemporary educational pressures on our educational choices.

This is not really a joke anymore. The governors of Texas, Florida and North Carolina have announced that they do not intend to spend taxpayer money subsidizing the liberal arts. Florida Governor, Rick Scott, asks, “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.” Even President Obama recently urged students to keep in mind that a technical training could be more valuable than a degree in art history. Majors like English, once very popular and highly respected, are in steep decline.

I have a PhD in Physics. My career was built upon highly focused, narrowly specialized courses of study. But the highlights of my education include courses in the impact of science on society, the genesis of the American Civil War, and the rise of Impressionism in the 19th century.

I have since moved on to a new career, one in which a PhD in science is no longer a prerequisite. In some ways, my knowledge of quantum physics and orbital mechanics are no longer relevant to my daily affairs, but my exposure to the human condition through the ‘liberal elements’ of my education are more central to my life than ever. (It’s a measure of the hyper-polarization of today’s society that I should point out, as did Zakaria, that a liberal arts education has nothing to do with political viewpoints.)

Regardless of how much money you make, you cannot call yourself educated if your training focused only on the utilitarian aspects of life. To be blunt, if your educational background doesn’t include a “broad exposure to the outlines of knowledge” then it is deficient, or at least incomplete.

If you’ve never heard a symphony, seen a ballet or heard the words of Shakespeare spoken on a stage then you are not fully educated.  If you’ve never read from the Western Canon, or an equivalent body of work, then your education is incomplete.

If you do not know the broad outline of history, not knowing, for example, how World War II flowed from its predecessor, then you cannot claim to be educated.  If you cannot find Iran, Columbia or Ukraine on a map, then you have work to do.

If you have never spoken a foreign language, then you cannot hope to understand your fellow human beings. (Computer languages don’t count and I doubt that being proficient in Klingon fits the bill, either.)

If the only purpose of your education was to earn enough money to pay back your student loan, then you are not educated.

The results of such myopic approaches to learning are evident whenever we turn on the television. A world focused two inches in front of our noses, or two minutes in the future, misses the overall essence of life. Most of us will come to the end of our days never knowing what we missed, taking with us a vague unease that somehow we’ve done it all wrong.

The good news is that autodidactism is alive and well. Despite its many obvious faults, the internet age enables self-education at hitherto unattainable levels. There is no excuse not to be engaged in life-long learning.

What is the course of your life? If it involves hours clutching a beer can in front of a television, I suggest you can do better. A useful metaphor is to imagine standing in examination at the end of your days to give an accounting of your life. What will you say on that day? How did you use the gift of your life?

Taking the effort to learn more of the human experience through a broad-based, non-utilitarian education is a good step toward preparing for that final examination.

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