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The Value of an Education

I began my university career a decade ago. I had grown tired of working for terrible wages in a hot and smelly kitchen, and I felt that the kind of challenge I was looking for in life would be found on some campus somewhere. Initially I had no idea what I wanted from a post-secondary education – I didn’t even know what sort of education I wanted. And so I drifted for the first two years between Biology, Astronomy, History, Literature, Philosophy, and Political Science. As it turned out, my fascination with biology was eclipsed by my passion for politics and philosophy, and I graduated with a degree in Political Science. I went on to do a year of undergraduate level sociology, where I discovered gender studies – and in particular the study of masculinities – and I finally went on to do a Master’s degree that allowed me to combine both political science and gender studies. By this time I had spent more time and money on education than I had ever thought possible – especially considering that the plan I had formulated during my last year of high-school would have seen me complete a two-year diploma in computer science. I was a youth of widely divergent interests.

I was also a conservative. I’m not talking about some high-minded, philosophical conservatism fuelled by an appreciation for tradition and a belief in prudent fiscal planning; I was a conservative of another sort. I believed poor people to be weak-willed failures deserving of their sad lots in life. I believed that expeditionary warfare ought to be pursued not only for the national interest, but because sometimes other nations simply deserved to be destroyed utterly – especially ones that I considered to be ‘barbaric’. I believed that women were inherently less intelligent than men, and that oftentimes they could not be trusted to make the ‘right’ decisions for themselves. I believed that because I had a black friend, I could never be racist. I distrusted and disliked ‘Indians’ and felt that the best thing we (as smart, advanced, white folk) could do for them would be to dismantle the reservation system and force them to assimilate into our obviously superior culture. Capitalism was good, Socialism was bad. Welfare was bad. Criminals should be put to death. I was the very model of a knee-jerk, authoritarian, proto-fascist conservative. I was so ridiculous in my outlook that I was approaching self-parody with a speed that bordered on the super-luminal. I knew that I was right.

By the time I had completed my undergraduate degree, I was a socialist. I had embraced many of the key tenets of feminism. I considered Foucault to be a sort of hero of mine – though I would later come to be critical of parts of his work. While I retained a respect for the purpose and history of the armed forces, I also recognized that they – like any weapon – should only be deployed in the direst of situations. I volunteered time with charities of many types, and I began to see the less fortunate members of our society as worthy of dignity, respect, and assistance. I had lost what vestiges of faith I had carried with me from my childhood, and I had embraced the analytical tools that my philosophical education had furnished me with. It wouldn’t be until I had almost completed my Master’s degree that I began to see myself as any sort of ally to social justice movements – in large part because I was still uncomfortable with the idea of standing out in a crowd. In a few rather short years, I had changed not only my political views, but my entire epistemology. I knew only that I knew very little.

A change, I think, for the better.

So what’s my point in all of this? It is only that education has value. My education in the arts and humanities changed the way I saw the world and interacted with it. It fundamentally deconstructed my old character and built in its place a person more able to empathize with – and more willing to assist – those members of my society who had been forgotten or discarded. My education stripped away uncountable layers of assumptions, false beliefs, and faulty heuristics that had coloured my perceptions of reality, and replaced them with a set of powerful tools that could be used to gain a far more accurate understanding of the world around me, and of the society I lived in.

Results may vary. Not everyone who pursues an education will end up a progressive or a leftist, and that’s not a bad thing at all. I’m not one of those people who argue that conservatism is evil or wrong, or that if we were all smart and rational and wise, we’d be progressives; a healthy society is one that that thrives on healthy debate between as many viewpoints as possible – at least in my view. I tend to think that conservatism is a necessary component of a healthy body politic; conservatives remind the rest of us that sometimes traditions are important, that prudence can often be a virtue, and that progress might sometimes benefit from a little bit of caution. These sorts of things are classical conservative values, and their importance doesn’t change, just because those who call themselves conservatives today are at best only casually familiar with the values of their ideological forebears. I think the contemporary conservative movement has strayed from its roots a fair bit – to the point where it might more accurately be called the ‘regressive movement’ or perhaps ‘the recidivist movement’. But I digress. Again.

Universities are not ‘indoctrination centres’ or ‘liberal brainwashing facilities’; they are crucibles that can, if we are willing to let them, burn away our preconceptions. Degrees in the arts and humanities are not wasted; they allow us to perceive the world in novel and challenging ways. Will my degree set me up with a career in the same way that an engineering degree can? Probably not, but that’s not why I spent all those years earning it. My education taught me how to think and how, I believe, to be a better person. That has value. That has worth.