Sunday, May 27, 2012


I never went to college.  That's one of the drivers behind this particular ten year reading course; I'll probably spend the rest of my life making it up to myself for not having gone to college.  (And yes, I can still go and almost certainly will in some way, shape or form, but going to college when you're pushing forty is different than going right out of high school.)  My reasons were simple.  They were, in some particular order, 1) I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, 2) I 'took a year off' and got hooked on work paychecks and 3) the debt always seemed too high.
That third one was a real obstacle for me, even back in the 90's when it was just barely possible to put yourself through.  My understanding is that tuition is higher now.  In fact, it's so high that more and more people are questioning the value of a degree.  What kind of degree do you need to have to justify $100,000 worth of debt?  There might be a few degrees worth that, but not many and not nearly as many as there are students racking up the debt.  (A friend of mine has a friend who got a PHD in acting from an Ivy League school.  That's just out and out foolish on about three different levels.  She'll spend the rest of her life paying for those decisions and I do mean paying.)
With all of that in mind, I found this article (via Instapundit) quite interesting.  It talks about the future role of online education and what it will mean for traditional colleges.  And whether some kind of online system could actual serve as a replacement.  The whole thing is worth reading, but this stood out:
One of the radical changes I think we will see is the decoupling of the humanities from technical and professional education. As it is, universities package together two forms of education with radically different economics. Scientific, technological, and professional courses teach skills that are judged by objective standards and have direct, measurable economic value.
The humanities, at best, have an economic value that is indirect and difficult to quantify. Perhaps it will make you more creative and a deeper thinker. Maybe Steve Jobs sitting in on classes in calligraphy helped inspire the Macintosh. But then again, the humanities departments are also packed with a bunch of charlatans who will waste your time with things like--well, here's an example. Check out a hilarious review by Joe Queenan of an impossibly pretentious and utterly nonsensical academic tome on the deeper meaning of that important subject, Harpo Marx.
As someone who came out of the humanities departments--I have a degree in philosophy--I assure you that this sort of thing goes on all the time, and your tuition dollars are paying for it. Obviously, there is no reason why they should pay for it, so eventually they won't.
Do you want to know the actual function of humanities education in the job market? For most people, humanities education is a kind of finishing school. It is less about acquiring useful skills or knowledge than it is about learning mannerisms and etiquette, teaching students to act and talk and write like a member of the educated class. In My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle offers Henry Higgins five shillings to teach her to "talk more genteel-like" so she can get a better class of job. Now we do that with four years of college education, at $30,000 per year.
The ten year path through the Great Books is essentially one huge Humanities course.  At the end of it, I'm confident that I'll have some of that polish, and also a better feel for things like citizenship, science, religion and the big questions like 'why are we here and what do we do about it'.  There will (sadly) be no degree handed out or even a certificate that I can use for some future employer.  All of the benefits (and I think they will be real!) will be non-commercial.  That's ok with me and I'm not making anyone else pay for it, so no one else should mind either. 
But if college really has drifted too far from the tasks that it should do, it will be replaced.  Should be replaced.  If the internet can help us along to the something better, good.

1 comment:

  1. I liked reading your thoughts on this immensely, Peder. It was like looking into your soul. I'm proud of who you are and how you continually stretch your mind with reading and life's day to day situations.