Why Go to College?

GIS 2030 Instructional Team

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During the long months ahead, you might occasionally wonder: What am I doing here, taking university classes? On the face of it, the question makes sense. You may already be overburdened with responsibilities towards your job, family, friends. You might wish to spend your leisure time relaxing, instead of doing homework and reading speculations about the nature of the universe. Going to university might create additional stresses in your life. You sometimes have to pay for your education and living expenses, or to take loans which you will have to pay later. Moreover, in the time it takes to go to university, you could be working and earning money. It takes courage to have your papers compared, evaluated, and graded. Also, knowledge doesn't always bring greater happiness. In some ways, ignorance is indeed bliss; an oncologist,for example, is more likely to appreciate the true meaning of terminal lung cancer than a professional athlete. Finally, social ills--such as environmental degradation, materialistic value systems, and political indoctrination--are traceable in part to humankind's successive increments in its store of knowledge.

These are excellent reasons to stay away from books and universities. Many more, we are sure, could be unearthed. On balance, however, most people feel that the case for self-education, higher education, and cultural literacy is far stronger. They intuitively know what the advantages are, and this knowledge, most likely, fortifies their resolve to further their education, especially in the difficult first year of their university career. Still, at one point or another during the following months or years, you might need a bit more than mere intuition to keep you going. To meet this potential need, the following pages present a commonsense, and widely shared, defense of university education:

I. The most obvious advantage concerns income and job opportunities. Statistically speaking, education and income levels are linked; the better educated you are, the higher your income tends to be. In assessing this link, we ought to keep in mind Benjamin D'Israeli's aphorism about "lies, damn lies, and statistics." Native Americans may or may not be vanishing, but the Native American I talked to yesterday isn't. Similarly, if I take a random sample of 1,000 high school dropouts, 1,000 high school graduates, and 1,000 university graduates, I shall find rich and poor persons in all three groups. But the proportions will be different. To take a hypothetical example, the respective number of people under the poverty line in these three groups might be 200, 100, and 50.

Likewise, education enhances opportunities for career advancement. Without a university degree, certain promotional opportunities are simply closed. Many of our students tell us that the primary reason they are here is this: to be promoted (and thereby improve their income and social standing), they need a university degree

The societal benefits are no less striking. The chief wealth of a nation, some economists believe, is not its land, natural resources, or population. Switzerland is fairly poor in all three, yet it is one of the world's wealthiest nations. Brazil is rich in all three, but incomparably poorer. The German and Finnish experiences after World War II even raise the possibility that, if placed on a barren island, an educated people could, in twenty years, create a more prosperous society than the one enjoyed now by Brazilians and Nigerians. To be sure, countries like Switzerland often enjoy a more congenial climate than Nigeria, they are freer, and they enjoy greater political stability. These and other characteristics contribute to their higher prosperity and quality of life, but it is generally agreed that the higher educational levels prevailing in these prosperous nations contribute to their affluence.

II. Knowledge has many other practical applications. If you are a Mexican wishing to immigrate illegally to the U.S., the ability to read English and study maps minimize contacts with coyotes and rat-infested tunnels. If you know how to fix a motorcycle, you can save yourself piles of money on repairs. If you know how to calculate interest rates, you are in a better position to start your own business or find errors in your monthly bank statement. If you know that all hair shampoos are made of the same few active ingredients, you are less likely to fall prey to the advertising shenanigans of the cosmetic industry.

An educated person is more likely to resolve difficulties and conflicts in a rational manner. Imagine getting caught in an argument with your husband and feeling like throwing the dishes at him. Letting go of your emotions in such a situation may be detrimental to your marriage and aspirations for a happy future. Perhaps you need at that moment every bit of sanity and rationality you can summon. The acquired habits of reasoning, tolerance, humility, and reflection might serve you well in this and many other personal crises of your life.

In more general terms, rational and scientific inquiries strive towards open-mindedness, tolerance, skepticism, and a constructive process of learning from our mistakes. In their ideal form, they set before us a model of proper conduct. Some people feel that our failure to apply this model to politics and to our daily lives throws much light on our collective misbehavior. "The danger of our days," one biochemist believes, "is that politics has run away with the tools [of science], leaving [its] way of thinking behind. The forces created by science can be handled only by the mentality which created them."

III. One practical application deserves special mention here. According to one writer, "regardless of the way health is measured (mortality, morbidity, symptoms, or subjective evaluation), and regardless of the unit of observation (individuals, city or state averages), years of schooling usually emerges as the most powerful correlate of good health." That is, though educated people are not necessarily healthy, they are more likely to enjoy good health than tycoons, or athletes, or petrol station attendants, or any other group of people. Insurance companies know this, of course, hence the comparatively low life insurance rates for teachers.

For the time being, we can only conjecture about the causes of this surprising observation. An educated person is more likely to have a better appreciation for the hazards of smoking, overweight, lack of exercise, or stress. Her training makes it a bit more difficult for her to deny these problems' existence; it gives her the intellectual tools needed to prevent their occurrence, and it provides her a clear rationale for reducing their severity or eliminating them. Education provides greater social mobility and freedom; an educated person finding herself daily exposed to occupational hazards is less likely to explain them away or remain on the job for very long. All other things being equal, an educated person is more likely to lead a meaningful life, feel better about herself, and be less vulnerable to stress-related diseases.

Consider some statistics. One out of five operations in the United States may be unnecessary. Thirteen out of every 1,000 operations end in death. Thus, owing to human fallibility, ignorance, or greed, you may face, at some future date, the grave risk of needlessly being cut up on the operating table. The rest is simple. Ask yourself, wouldn't education in general, and familiarity with the medical profession and human health in particular, enhance the chances that you and your loved ones escape this fate? Isn't lack of education a key contributor to such depressing statistics?

IV. Physical exercise, it is universally agreed, is beneficial to well-being--physical, mental, and emotional. "A sound mind in a sound body," we say. Almost certainly, the same logic applies to your brain. You keep it exercised, and it stays in shape. You use it only a little, and it atrophies more quickly. You take care of your bicycle by lubricating it and adjusting its brakes. You take care of your body by exercising. Shouldn't you exercise the most distinctly human portion of your body, the seat of your thoughts and emotions, and the one organ that most clearly separates you from bats and monkeys?

V. Opinion polls repeatedly show that our culture values learned men and women. This high regard for knowledgeable people seems to be almost universal. It is not only North-Americans, Russians, Japanese, or Frenchmen that value the learned among them; stone-age people show the same respect towards their learned shamans and medicine men. In most cultures then, a man might be handsome, kind, physically fit, or a valiant warrior, but if he is comparatively uneducated, he would still be considered in some ways deficient. This lack of education may not only damage his social standing, but his standing in his own eyes. In other words, although we are not familiar with any concrete research on the subject, one expects to find a positive correlation between education and self-confidence. Again, the link, if it exists, is only statistical in nature. Some uneducated people are extremely self-confident; some Ph.D.'s are horribly insecure. But it seems probable that, all other things being equal, the better educated a person is, the better he feels about himself.

VI. One of the most outstanding and lovable characteristics of children is inquisitiveness. "Why is the sky blue?" our toddlers ask. "Why is 2 + 5 = 7?" "What's under the living room carpet?" Animals too seem to be curious about the world around them. Take a dog to the woods and watch his behavior. Or watch a kitten's endless games with a piece of string. Sadly, many of us lose some of this curiosity when we come of age. Some psychologists trace this loss to our inadequate educational system; others ascribe it to our innate nature. Nevertheless, the remarkable fact is that this loss of interest is not universal: we all know some adults who are as curious about things as any five-year-old is. Moreover, this curiosity, this love of knowledge for its own sake, seems to be influenced by culture. Greek intellectuals were obsessed with an insatiable love for knowing. "Philosophy," a Greek word, means "love of wisdom." Learning, the ancient Hebrews similarly felt, constitutes its own reward. Hence some of their greatest scholars went by such names as "John the Shoemaker." This disinterested love of knowledge and the reluctance to turn knowledge into a "shovel for digging gold" continues to this very day. Among the scientists and scholars of the last few centuries one finds a lens maker, a pharmacist, a nobleman's secretary, and an abbot of a backwoods monastery.

For a great number of individuals and cultures, then, knowledge is its own reward. In many cultures this aspect of learning is often ignored; some even say that it is stifled and suppressed. Nevertheless, learning is the most immediate and obvious reward of either self-education or going to college. The decision whether to derive joy from your school work--despite the occasional drudgery, test-taking, late hours, or a 70 hour workweek--is entirely yours. If you are not there already, we invite you to turn over a new leaf, discard any negative attitudes about the learning process you might have acquired before coming here, and give learning, and yourself, a chance.

VII. Going to college expands your social horizons. You meet new people, make new friends, share new experiences. Unlike our ancestors of thousands of years ago, we do not live in a closed tribal society. We see more people every day but have fewer close friends. We go to bars or parties, and sometimes are lucky enough to find what we are looking for. A university provides an alternative setting for satisfying our needs for companionship, personal growth, and friendship.

VIII. Education increases our personal freedom. Some of our beliefs and habits are not truly our own. Often, our innermost thoughts and desires are products of indoctrination. What we call "our" religion is usually little more than a direct consequence of our accidental birth in a given social context. Most ancient Greeks believed in Zeus and Apollo; many contemporary Americans believe in the teachings and divinity of Christ. Education makes us less dogmatic about our own beliefs, and more tolerant about the beliefs of others. It shatters some of the invisible prison walls of our minds. It doesn't altogether remove us from Plato's cave of shadows, but it does, unquestionably, carry us a small step away from the realm of indoctrination and false certitude.

IX. Though we know only little about the universe, this knowledge is still worth having. This knowledge suggests, for example, that all humans are members of the same species, and that they are the close relatives of all other life forms of this planet. It tells us that complex entities like the biosphere, the human mind, and world economies are both fragile and resilient, and that the consequences of tampering with them are not wholly predictable. It suggests that we are not as rational and unique as we once thought we were, that we are neither at the center of the biosphere nor at the center of the universe. It warns us that extinction of any species--including our own--is distinctly possible. It reminds us that prosperous civilizations can progress, and that they can sink into a thousand-year-long dark age.

X. The last benefit of education concerns the close links between education and democracy. Ancient Greece bequeathed to us traditions of mathematical, scientific, and historical inquiries. But this assertion, as stated, is not entirely correct. Virtually nothing has been bequeathed by the likes of totalitarian Sparta. Decisive intellectual contributions were made by ancient Greek democracies or by places, like the Ptolemaic Kingdom, where freedom of inquiry was taken for granted. Similarly, excellent scholarship can be found nowadays practically everywhere, but it is most common in the established democracies of North America and North Western Europe. Democracy, observably, is the most fertile ground upon which culture flourishes.

But this relationship between education and democracy is a two-way street. To flourish, democracy requires an educated citizenry. "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free," says Thomas Jefferson, "it expects what never was and never will be." In his defense of Athenian democracy, Pericles says that "while not all of us can originate policy, all of us are able to judge it." For the wonderful political system we call democracy to work, we must be able to judge our policy makers and their policies. We must know something about such issues as Detroit's air and water pollution, global income distribution, or Cuba. If democracy is to work, if we wish not to fall victims to propaganda Left and Right, if we wish to vote for our interests and convictions, we must educate ourselves about the main issues of our time. We must, in other words, go to college and/or assimilate many books. Albert Einstein puts it this way:

Democracy, taken in its narrower sense, suffers from the fact that those in economic and political power possess the means for molding public opinion to serve their own class interests. The democratic form of government in itself does not automatically solve problems; it offers, however, a useful framework for their solution. Everything depends ultimately on the political and moral qualities of the citizenry.

This, certainly, is an idea worth pondering upon. The future of the North America, and the future of humanity, depend upon our ability to bring greater awareness, enlightenment, and rationality to politics. This ability presupposes an educated citizenry. In this broad context, therefore, you might wish to view your sojourn in academia as a modest personal contribution to humankind's future.

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