I Pay Rapt Attention

The Value of an Education

Posted in Eccentricities by Zoelle on July 20, 2009

A few days ago, Ben Casnocha posted on his blog about Tyler Cowen’s comparison of the modern educational system to a placebo. It was… incendiary,  shall we say. The main point (as exhaustively clarified in the very lively comments to the post) was essentially that perhaps college students receive “intellectual self-confidence” (what Casnocha identifies as the primary benefit of a college education) from just thinking that they’re being educated (as opposed to actually learning anything.) While I have some problems with the validity of the metaphor in general (how can the educational system, which is inherently a delivery system be a placebo?)nevertheless, it got me thinking, and rather than jumping all over his blog (again) I thought I’d post some of my musings here:

On Critical Reasoning

The selling point for the liberal-arts college educational experience is in many ways the contention that it will “teach you to think” (at least, that’s what they claim here at Yale…) Numerous people (who I’m too lazy to track down links for right now) have seriously questioned whether it’s possible to teach a skill like critical reasoning in a classroom setting. While I think a class called “critical reasoning” sounds both exceptionally boring and not particularly useful, I -do- think that the collegiate educational environment does provide legitimate, tangible opportunities to build critical reasoning skills on a regular basis, though in a perhaps less formal sense. Writing essays forces development of the ability to construct a logical argument from preexisting material- that’s a certain type of thinking that can be applied more broadly than in English class. I could give more examples, but I’m hoping my point is clear- critical reasoning, to my mind, is one of those skills that really can be acquired through internalization of the general processes at work in specific circumstances (like essay writing or doing problem sets or working on a project)and because the college experience forces those situations upon the individual regularly and within a (theoretically) supportive environment, critical reasoning is almost forced to develop, at least to a point. Perhaps I’m being naive; it wouldn’t be the first time.

On the Value of College in General

It could be argued that for the sufficiently motivated individual, such experiences can be had outside of the collegiate bubble. That’s totally true- but I imagine that very few people are sufficiently motivated to sustain that level of constant challenge (of one kind or another) for a full 4+ years. Independent learning and exploration of that kind certainly require strong goals or at very least enough self-awareness to recognize what ought to be studied. I refuse to believe that a completely random approach could be as valuable as an admittedly generic or flawed but guided program. You’d have to get very lucky, at least.

Yet (as has also been argued over and over and over again) I would point to the other aspects of the collegiate experience to locate its value– for me at least. Mostly, it provides a deferment- I get to explore lots of things, meet lots of people, and stew until I get at least a marginally better idea of what I want to do professionally (in case you were wondering, I still have no clue. But that’s besides the point.)I suppose if I had known from the age of 5 that I wanted to be a zookeeper (like one of my friends) it would make more sense to muck around for a bit and then go to Zoo School– but I’m not in that situation, and something like 90% of my friends aren’t either. College serves as one giant tasting menu of everything from academic disciplines to types of people and even physical locations. Great for my confusion. I hope.

It’s also got all those other things people mention- meeting and interacting with diverse new people, making contacts, accessing new opportunities, etc. All of that is great, and if you know what you want to learn, well then, that’s good too. Especially in the sciences or medicine or other fields where some base level of rote memorization or skill is actually necessary to function.

To bring this back to my previous thoughts about critical reasoning: for me (a literature major) it’s not about remembering the specific content of specific classes (unless they directly relate to my thesis) so much as recalling how I approached various problems or issues I encountered in previous essays or readings and using that skill set to deconstruct analogous situations. It’s about recognizing something essential to human nature in all of its forms (in this case, narrative structure- my continual obsession- but that’s another story entirely.)And while I could read all these books on my own, I know I get more from listening to my peers fail to understand the source material than I could get from independently reading a critical essay with a different perspective. It helps me understand how other people think– and I can’t think of learning anything more valuable for the future. But that’s just me.

Ok, I know many of you are college students or formal college students- so if you managed to wade through my rambling thoughts above, leave some of your own- do you think the only benefit we get from formal education is an “intellectual self-confidence” of sorts? Am I naive to think there’s something more there? What do value do you find in college? Do you think you’re actually learning anything? More importantly, do you care if you are?


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