Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Values of Education, Classical and Otherwise

For those of us who teach in the Humanities (or those of us who earned a liberal arts education or those of us who love/support people who teach in the Humanities), The New York Times has given us some love letters this morning, and from columnists with whom we might not always agree.

For some, the names of David Brooks and Stanley Fish result in an immediate spike in blood pressure and temper, and sure, I'll be the first to admit that I don't always agree with their perspectives. But I've almost always enjoyed their writing and their intriguing thoughts, even when those thoughts are radically different than mine.

But this morning, their thoughts aren't radically different than mine. In his piece, David Brooks talks about the various skills that a Humanities education bestows (knowing how to read and write, understanding the language of emotion, making analogies) and how they will be useful in any field. He finishes by talking about The Big Shaggy, his metaphor for something inside a human that makes the human behave in irrational, often unexplainable, ways (like a politician who risks everything for love/sex or oil engineers becoming comfortable with risks). He talks about how a Humanities education will help us understand The Big Shaggy.

In his piece, Stanley Fish reviews three recent books about education and contemplates the value of a Classical education. Many of his observations look at K-12 education, but they might be equally as valid for a college education.

It's sometimes hard to advocate for a college education, whether one gets a Humanities degree or something that seems to lead more directly to a job (say, Accounting), when one factors in the price. Two weeks ago The New York Times presented this story of a student who ran up $100,000 getting a top notch undergraduate degree. Yikes. The Sunday Business section of The Washington Post this week ran several stories about paying for college. Very sobering.

My spouse and I were recently talking about how lucky we were to go to school when we did. I got through my undergraduate education at a small, liberal arts college without having to take out too many loans; I got lots of scholarships, and a bit of help from my parents, but mostly scholarships. I didn't take out any loans for my graduate degree. I got a small stipend for teaching, and a steeply reduced tuition ($150 or so a semester, not per course, per semester), and I lived very cheaply. My spouse got the same deal for graduate school, after leaving undergraduate school with just a smidge of student loan debt, which we deferred until after graduate school. My spouse returned to graduate school in the mid-90's, and we did take out loans then, but mainly because it was a cheaper way to finance the adventure and to consolidate some other debt. At that point, tuition was still very cheap, even though he didn't have a TA or other kind of work-study deal that grad students get. It was a very good deal.

I doubt that those kind of deals exist anymore, although I still think that community colleges and state schools are usually a very good bargain for the money. I know that it's tough to get any kind of job without a college degree, but to take out $100,000 for an undergraduate degree? Will you ever really see the return on that money? And how many of those people go on to rack up debt for grad school?

And we're not even talking about the vast hordes of people who take on substantial debt and never finish the undergraduate degree. Yikes. That's debt that will likely never pay for itself.

I don't have any answers. Happily no one has elected me thinking that I'll come up with answers. Unhappily, I'm not seeing anyone on the national level who's got any sort of vision of a way to do things differently.


Anonymous said...

While I don't disagree with the value of a humanities education, it isn't an either-or proposition.

Here's a take on teh subject: http://blog.art21.org/2010/05/19/what-makes-us-more-human-the-vast-middle-ground-between-art-and-science/

Kristin said...

Thanks for reminding me that education can expand beyond our narrow categories.