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Though a degree made from pork bellies might be delicious... - Trickle of Consciousness
Though a degree made from pork bellies might be delicious...
So, I got into a discussion about higher education this morning, spurred in part by a radio mention about all this student loan nonsense. We went all over the place, really, and writing about everything we bounced around to would make for something so unfocused as to be unreadable. If I'm feeling super-ambitious, I might manage to write multiple entries on some of the other topics, but for now I'm going to try to focus on what seems to be the standout pseudo-epiphany I had.

Every other day I see some link online to an article about "The best degrees" or "Dead-end degrees to avoid" or something similar. And every single one of those articles boils down "best" with a straight up dollars-earned comparison. Dead-end degrees are those that don't make you money. They're "bad returns on your investment."

I'm not sure if I can say it's The Thing That's Wrong, but certainly one of the things about the "education debate" that always rankles me is the continued insistence that a degree is a financial commodity. As far as I'm concerned, a degree is just a piece of paper. Okay, maybe it's a symbol. Fine: definitely it's a symbol. If you think it's a symbol of your potential fiscal success, however, I think you're buying into a fallacy.

The thing about symbols is, they can represent a lot of different things. From my perspective, a degree is a symbol of what you learned. That can be any of a number of things: you could learn an ungodly amount of trivia for which you can find no practical application; you could learn a diverse set of skills which you can put to use in just as diverse a set of ways; you could learn nothing more than how to bullshit your way through life, netting a position which grossly overpays you given your actual contributions to the world. Just so we're clear, though, each of those is not a specific kind of degree (chemistry, literature, business). Instead, it's every kind of degree. The difference, I'd contend, winds up being a combination of the learning experience and the individual in question.

And that's where I think higher education has its work cut out for it. Too many people (including, sadly, administrators at institutions of higher learning) have bought into the Capitalist / Social Darwinist narrative. It insists that anything that doesn't show direct profit via simplistic formulae doesn't serve society, and either needs to change to generate profit, or die a withering death. So colleges figure out how to maximize profits, and students put together spreadsheets based on the aforementioned internet articles, and we get more and more people whose degrees aren't symbols of much of anything, because the only thing anyone involved was interested in was the piece of paper itself, and everything it's meant to represent winds up falling to the side.

I am admittedly a horribly leftist dope on social issues, and, hey, I have one of those "worthless" degrees, so clearly I'm biased in all sorts of ways, but I just feel like one of the biggest hurdles we need to get over in the education debate is talking about it like it's pork bellies. Once we recognize the actual primary goals of education, then I think we're in a place where we can start looking at how to restructure it in a way that's fair and useful.

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