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Sep 07 2012

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.

16 comments

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  1. 1
    smrnda

    Given what I’ve read of your writing here on this blog, I’m kind of surprised that you could have been all those things that you were before your education. I don’t doubt the truth of your story one bit because I’ve seen so many people drastically change the same way.

    In the US there’s lots of hostility towards any sort of education that isn’t clear vocational training, but it kind of ignores that education can be vocational training, but that vocational training is an inadequate preparation to being a human being and world citizen. Part of the hostility in the US is that (like yourself) education tends to change the opinions of people who were raised in conservative or religious households, but if opinions can be changed so easily it makes me wonder how backed up by facts and evidence they could have been in the first place.

    I actually went for a very employment related field, but college was a great time because of the atmosphere – I learned a lot from other people, weighed different opinions and perspectives and learned a lot from all the moral, philosophical and political discussions. I also learned how to be less confrontational about persuading people of my own views, which was pretty important.

  2. 2
    Crommunist

    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

    You’re fired.

  3. 3
    Hank Fox

    Excellent piece of writing.

  4. 4
    Edwin

    Well, this is awkward.

  5. 5
    Edwin

    Yes, looking back on my ‘old self’, I am often stunned by just how wilfully ignorant I was about so many things. I think for me it boiled down to my belief that my outlook was ‘common sense’, ‘simple’, and ‘non-PC’. I don’t know that I held those beliefs as a way of pissing off other people, but I certainly didn’t care that my views were repugnant to others, not to mention straight-up hurtful. It took a long time and a lot of work to undo those deeply-ingrained opinions.

  6. 6
    Ysanne

    Great post, thank you!

    I’d like to add a tiny bit to your last paragraph…
    This enlightening effect of university education is definitely not restricted to the humanities, it works in the sciences as well… Suddenly you meet smart people from a vast variety of backgrounds and get to discuss with them points of view that you never considered or even thought of (instead of the typical STFU approach in environments that see intellectual discussion as a waste of time and see people with differing opinions as enemies), the introduction to your field of study usually makes you question their basics — things just assumed as given your whole life, like how numbers are actually defined, and you get exposed to a lot of “how does this work” and “do we REALLY know this” and “explain this complicated thing without resorting to handwaving” kind of thinking.
    Actually, IMHO this is the most important thing that people should be able to take away from their uni education: The ability to think and learn and understand things and figure out how one thing can lead to another. The subject’s content is nice to have but somewhat secondary to that.
    I think that a humanities degree actually has very important content (abstract is not the same as irrelevant!), but even if it weren’t, it’d be already worth the investment for all the other skills one picks up along the way.

  7. 7
    Atheist Watch

    Of course, with the education the poster recieved, he will only really be able to do those jobs he tried to leave behind.

    And a guy that much into feminism is really a bit of a pussy.

  8. 8
    Atheist Watch

    And that message is for you and all the other members of the Atheists Hate Blogs.

    So moderate away. Coward.

    Also, I eat my own farts and cuddle with a life-sized body pillow of Kirk Cameron at night. My mother doesn’t return my phone messages, and I once drank a stale beer after someone had put their cigarette butt out in it.

  9. 9
    Edwin

    Wow. Hey everyone! Come see how badly this internet random schooled me!

    But seriously. You managed to wander in here on your own; you can wander right back out again.

  10. 10
    mythbri

    So what exactly do you watch, Atheist? Is it your job to police men on the internet to make sure that they don’t make the dangerous mistake of thinking women are people, thereby turning into the Worst Thing Imaginable – female genitalia?

  11. 11
    Crommunist

    That’s gross. Why would you tell us about that stuff? So unnecessary.

  12. 12
    hall-of-rage

    A bit of a pussy? Oh noez! Can’t have that!!

  13. 13
    hall-of-rage

    But in seriousness: your passing argument is reasonable at addressing why some conservative values are good, but I see the problem as more “not everyone who pursues an education will stop being regressive”. Continuing to have regressives, in the sense of people who truly hold those dehumanizing views you describe, is bad.

  14. 14
    hall-of-rage

    There are such benefits, but let’s not overestimate the value of an academic environment. When discussions are held on some intellectual level, if the participants are personally attached to their views, they’re not really going to communicate with each other. They’ll just practice superficial debating skills: rather than “STFU you’re wrong”, it becomes “Let’s have a verbal spar for hours, and I’ll never consider the actual content of your argument”. Coming out of an environment with those norms makes some people really dangerous. They waste a lot of time, they have a lot of power, but it’s nearly impossible to communicate with them on issues that matter. Furthermore, the more intellectual their academic bubbles, the more they tend to look down on anyone else and consider them “not smart”.

    I’m not saying that’s an inevitable effect. But if you’re going to praise an environment for encouraging progressive thinking in many, you should also acknowledge that they encourage snobbery in many.

  15. 15
    hall-of-rage

    For the sciences side, that can be useful too, teaching people a healthy skepticism about ideas they already hold. Unfortunately I’ve met far too many people who learn only to be selectively “skeptical” about anything new that anyone ever tells them, and again waste hours trying to argue down to moral axioms or “hard” (non-statistical) evidence. That’s another technique for never having to change their opinions.

    People are fundamentally very good at keeping up the walls in their mind, no matter how long are the paths they have to take around them.

  16. 16
    Ysanne

    rather than “STFU you’re wrong”, it becomes “Let’s have a verbal spar for hours, and I’ll never consider the actual content of your argument”.

    Yep, does happen quite a lot, I was in enough of these discussions to know that. They hardly ever ended with someone saying “huh, wow, actually… you’re right, I never considered it like that but now I see how I was wrong” outright.
    But they had nice long-term effects a lot of the time, at least for me, because in the privacy of my own head, I just couldn’t evade the contents by some rhetorical move. (Also, I knew what parts of my position were just tricks, and saw their weaknesses that I had tried to protect.) This made me change my opinions and views a good number of times.
    I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one with this experience. :-)
    And this could happen precisely because the arguments were actually there for me to think through, if only afterwards, instead of having been substituted for by a content-free STFU.

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