Where is the value?

People don’t appreciate ideas they don’t understand. This is quite natural. On what basis could you value ideas you don’t understand? Part of our job as educators is to cultivate the kinds of understanding that pave the way to valuing things in a new light. Sometimes that job is not as hard as getting the chance to do it.

Our students come to us well aware of the value of a roof over their head, financial stability, reliable transportation and such. A young adult needs a healthy appreciation for the value of the basic necessities of life. But a life driven exclusively by necessity is one that lacks agency. Part of the role of higher education is to cultivate agency. This is built into the very concept of a liberal arts education. A liberal arts education is one aimed at freeing the mind from the necessities of custom, dogma, intellectual manipulation, and other forms of ill-considered opinion.

This kind of liberty can look like a luxury to people who feel trapped by the imperatives of life in a highly competitive materialistic society. That perception is often encouraged by people who relentlessly focus on the ROI of higher education. Specifically, the value higher education as job training. These people will be eager to find shortcuts through general education requirements. College in the high school comes to mind as an easy way to cut the financial overhead of education and get young people “more efficiently” into the workforce.

I’d submit that such efforts demonstrate an implicit lack of regard for young people as people. Further, its disregard young people won’t protest because they are simultaneously denied the opportunity to understand the value of college level inquiry into, say, history or philosophy. (Quick note here, I’m highly skeptical of the ability of any institution of higher learning to ensure that college level inquiry will happen in a high school classroom. In my own discipline, philosophy, I can pretty much rest assured that it won’t).

And thus, we can shortchange young people and they will never be the wiser (quite literally). This might seem quite clever from the perspective of policy makers and administrators who are acting like managers for a private equity firm. But that would presume that the decision makers understand what they are doing in diluting a liberal arts education. And this, ironically, would be uncharitable towards them. What’s more likely is that even as decision makers in higher education act like unscrupulous managers for a private equity firm, its good intentions all the way down. Higher education is expensive after all. We need to look out for the interests of tuition paying parents and taxpayers. And, of course, students just want to get a good paying job.

Value that isn’t understood is value that doesn’t get realized. And, of course, its value that is never missed. So, what’s the problem? Apparently, none. But you know what they say about appearances.

I’m hosting a rebuttal from Michael Reese in below:

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