Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Ivory Cubicle | Education: What Is It Good For?

A cocky student in Seattle who thought she could take cheating to the next level unwittingly fell victim to an online sting operation. According to the Atlantic, the student posted an ad on Craigslist, looking for a tall, college-aged brunette to take a math placement test in her place. A tall and brunette college professor, who was also a member of a Facebook teacher group, responded.

For the next month, the undercover teacher kept up a correspondence with the student, who soon asked the teacher to take the entire online class for her. Upon finally being confronted, the student gave reasons for desiring to cheat – “math is def not my strong suit.”

Apparently, this isn't an isolated a case. Last December, Forbes ran an article about a man who offered to pay $40,000 to someone willing to attend Harvard for him. With online courses becoming more popular, colleges have been employing software to identify students' typing speed and style to ensure that they are the ones taking the test.

What's the Point?

Well, I'd say “heck yes!” to anyone offering to pay my way through Harvard (all ethical considerations aside). I'm coming to realize, however, that I'm not exactly in the majority. Academic rigor has been on the decline in major universities (though perhaps not to the extent we've been told before), being a “party school” is a point of pride, and many an anecdote is passed around about a professor at some college canceling a test right before handing out professor evaluations to his students. No wonder the blogosphere tends to have a steady stream of articles popping up asking “is college worth it?”

Of course, the question “is college worth it?” has also bought into the reductionistic “money talks” method of evaluating education – how much money did you pay, what kind of jobs do you get, and do you ultimately profit in the long run?

Behind the scenes, there's still the American dream for success that so many of us have heard so often, “go to college, get a degree, get a high-paying job, make money, and retire.” Indeed. Some of us members of this younger generation have called shenanigans on the whole operation, preferring instead to choose the simple, raw, and hipster Etsy-and-coffee-shop-barista kind of life over the Lexus, Rolex, and 4000-sq.-ft.-house living of our parents' generation. We crave meaning, go to poetry slams (or at least watch them online), drink over-priced coffee, do arts and crafts, and move to Portland. Okay, maybe not so much the latter. But we've discovered that quality of life is not directly proportional to quantity of money.

Unfortunately, not everyone sees eye-to-eye on this point. The pragmatic decree to “get a diploma and get a job” is still the ruling paradigm, even in primary education, as Common Core standards are slashing traditional English curricula for “informational texts.” Why? Because when it comes to the perennial economic problem of weighing tangible goods (such as jobs) with intangible goods (such as proper literary sensibilities), the pragmatist American spirit won't hesitate to put the soul on the chopping block.

Which brings us to the main point. Education. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing?

Not exactly. See, there's a twin purpose to education, and the American pragmatist spirit only picks up on half of that. Scratch that, it only picks up on half-of-a-half of that. The modern American “get a diploma” approach, which supposedly emphasizes the practical money-making skills acquired in a college education, has lately placed more value on the piece of paper than the actual skills represented by it. Oh, you went to a party school, got wasted every weekend, showed up hungover on Mondays, and passed because your professor gave everyone an A on the final? Never mind, your piece of paper says “Bachelor of Science,” so you'll be fine.

But the ritual of exchanging a piece of paper for a job still hints at one function of education. Education is supposed to prepare a student to launch into society and become a productive member therein. Colleges, nominally, have done this, giving a diploma as a recognition of such an accomplishment and certifying that the student is prepared to enter into a mutually beneficial work arrangement for whichever employer sees fit to hire him. There are many tangible benefits, then, for the person who finds himself successfully educated.

The intangible benefits, however, are perhaps more fundamental. Plato talks of education as the turning of the soul towards the Good, that light which illuminates the truths of the immaterial plane and orders the soul in accordance with it. The Renaissance humanists picked up on this, emphasizing the importance of the liberal arts in ordering society, for order in society mirrors order in the soul. The liberal arts, with an emphasis on literature, philosophy, music, and so forth, emerged to train free men as the custodians of their society. The well-ordered soul does not need external compulsion.

The educated man works in the day and reads Cicero in the evening, quotes his Shakespeare, and is capable of moral-reasoning, self-government, and a life of peace. He is a man of all seasons, knowing the time to speak and to keep silent, to laugh and to weep, to labor and to rest. He has been taught to think, and by learning how to think, is rendered even the more useful in whatever employment he may find himself. He recognizes, then, that education is something worth pursuing in its own right, not merely something to check off the list to get to some place better.

Posted by Nick Barden
Image: The School of Athens by Raphael (1509-1510).

I know there are a lot of folks looking at making a decision on whether to go to college or not. Here are some helpful resources put out by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a conservative higher education organization, about choosing the right college and building your own core curriculum.


  1. As one who knows those eschewing the American dream in favor of the Portland-esque dream... and those who fall on both sides of the "education as a means" or "education as an end" discussion... this was an amazing article. I love it. There are so many facets to education, but you get at the heart of one of the most important: to know and live the Good Life.

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