An Educational Aside

nb_pinacoteca_kramskoy_portrait_of_the_philosopher_and_poet_vladimir_solovyovRegular readers of this blog expecting another humorous retelling of a significant/semi-significant/inane personal event will be disappointed by this week’s sombre post. Before I find myself inundated with emails containing the subject line “why so serious”, let me explain that this is a temporary aside. I have not abandoned telling the long joke that is my life and those who’ve come to expect stories of bathroom laundry, grasshopper commanding, reckless driving and firearms on trans-Atlantic flights can expect more of that in the future. This week however, will not be one of those posts.

I work for a university as an Student Advisor and keep one ear to the debates surrounding the future of post-secondary education. Namely the controversy we find ourselves in over the value of university education’s non-professional degrees versus on-the-job training and vocational schools. Today I want to talk about the inanity of quantifying the effectiveness of a liberal post-secondary education in Canada.

Detractors of university education pick on the lack of clear results. The target of their criticism more often than not is the liberal arts (though I would argue the liberal sciences will join this group soon enough) as an education without quantifiable results. A vocational school by contrast can quantify its success through statistics showcasing that they are able to train X number of students in Y vocational skill set.

Defenders of the a liberal arts degree fall back on the defense that a university teaches an extension of the citizenship skills taught in primary and secondary school, citing skills such as critical thinking, public engagement, morality and a well-rounded individual.

Detractors fire back that these high-minded benefits of a liberal arts education are ethereal and difficult to quantify. To a certain extent this is true, as defenders of liberal arts are able to cite studies suggesting personal economic and social benefits of training in concepts such as ethics, philosophy, history, analytical skills, etc. I see the problem of quantification as a red herring however, that speaks to an unclear vision of what we want from our society and the individuals that comprise it.

The problem is not that we are unable to measure what an informed, engaged, and well-rounded individual is, the problem is that we don’t know what these attributes are. Across all levels of society, we lack consensus on what an informed and engaged individual acts like. Is an individual versed in history, natural sciences, economics and philosophy that decides to spend the remainder of their life in complete isolation in the wilderness not informed? Certainly they are not engaged with society if we define engagement as related to exercising democratic rights to vote or engage in public forum, but does their choice to live in isolation with minimal impact on society make them less informed, less well-rounded?

Similarly, does a graduate having that takes all the moral, social and scientific learning before deciding to either rob a bank or run a bank that robs his customers not and informed, moralistic, and intelligent individual? Has a liberal education not served its purpose?

The last example exemplifies moral and social values that as a society we do not widely condone. As a society, there are few values that we can reach a general consensus on, but there are some none the less. I like to think that we view violence and theft with disdain and agree that we could stand to live in a world with less of both. We also generally view health and happiness as fundamental goods that while potentially costly in many social, economic, and environmental aspects, are in and of themselves inherently good.

The problem is that I see no consensus in our own society, let alone on an international scale on any sort of broader vision for what humanity should be. Topics such as religion, property ownership, government control, freedom, and the justification of violence all continue to be points of debate and contention at the municipal and community levels, let alone at the national and international levels.

My point in all this is that it is fruitless to argue what the value of a liberal university education is because we as cannot reach a consensus on what we value. Students can go to university and learn about all the humanities and social and sciences they want, becoming what defenders of a liberal education call a well-rounded individual. Once they step out and begin engaging with the world however, we have no real sense of what we would like to see a well-rounded individual do; let alone devise measures to quantifiably measure these actions. Until we can come up with expectations for the individual, we can’t expect to quantify how effectively they meet these expectations and thus cannot measure the value of liberal university post-secondary education as we would a vocational program.

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