May 30th, 2012


Ars longa, vita brevis

There's a lot of buzz about the bubble in higher education these days, where the price far exceeds the value and students are going too far into debt to get it. There's a lot to that. The part that intrigues me is the value part. Price and debt are what worry many people, but I think that the real tragedy in American education is that the worth of what you get -- no matter what you pay for it -- is often pretty poor, even at elite schools.

I went to Indiana State University in the 1970s. I wound up with a Bachelor of Arts in English, with minors in Political Science and History. I can't say that the course presented to me was excessively challenging, but there were remnants there of the old liberal arts curriculum. I learned some important things, and my natural curiosity has kept me learning. I know far more about English (and Political Science and History) now than I did when I graduated, but that's okay. I got a good foundation at ISU.

No doubt a non-teaching degree in English is not much of a job ticket, but then, I wasn't looking to acquire job credentials. And despite my intention from the start to go on to graduate school (law school at first, but I changed my mind and went to seminary), I never thought of my degree as just a stepping stone, either. I saw myself as joining the society of educated -- or, I should say now, of learned -- persons.

What is sad is that few people today can get even as good a college education as I got. I meet people today with advanced degrees who are basically ignoramuses with diplomas. Some of the worst run our public school system: the degreed dullards, I call them. Others are very proficient in their own area (often one of the much-vaunted STEM fields), but don't know any Humanities. Without a knowledge of history and literature and so on, they are cultural orphans, which is very sad.

When I went off to ISU, my mother said to me, "Never let college interfere with your education." Now, more than ever, it's important to realize that chasing a degree isn't all it's cracked up to be. And while I congratulate all the graduates this year, I would also remind them that the real test of life is What You Have Learned, not What Hangs on Your Wall.