CNN recently took a gander at the state of higher education. The documentary Ivory Tower looked at the rising cost of education and probed whether or not it is worth it. I sense the program seemed to get short shrift. Perhaps it was lost amid President Obama’s never-ending scrap with Congress, this time over immigration and growing anticipation and anxiety in Ferguson, Missouri as the entire US holds its breath and awaits the decision of the Grand Jury regarding an indictment or not in the Michael Brown shooting.
Attempts at assessing educational value are almost always tied directly to future earning potential. Many are now bypassing traditional liberal-arts type higher education in favour of degrees more focused on a specialized career. I certainly understand the need for a good job with sufficient earnings to enable one to live as one desires, but doesn’t anyone go to university to get a ‘well rounded education’ anymore?
In September of 1978 as I passed through the Roddick Gates on my first day as an undergraduate at McGill University in Montreal my outlook on this new chapter of my young life was to try to soak up as much ‘education ‘ as possible over the next three years; both in and out of lecture halls. This was what pursuing an Arts degree was all about; gaining a good solid diversified background. Other degrees such as engineering, computer science, and commerce to name just a few, were more concentrated on a get in, get out, and start working approach to education.
Was I worried that my all-around comprehensive degree would hurt me when it came graduation time and the real world beckoned? Certainly not. After all, I was a member of that generational cohort, perhaps the last one, who were brought up being told by teachers, principals and parents alike; “get an education and you’ll get a job”. They didn’t say get a specialized course of training in a highly specific specialty , and they certainly never mentioned the word ‘marketable’, they said get an education. And for many years they were bang on.
Right up through the seventies having a university degree and basic writing skills (which was assumed for a graduate at that time; alas I fear this is no longer true) got you a job. You could continue to hone your skills and ‘market’ yourself if you were so driven, but the advice of teachers and parents still held water. Then many of us who had completed our Bachelor’s degrees walked back out those grand gates only to find we had had the carpet pulled out from under us. Rapidly changing economic conditions due to any number of reasons and advancing technological changes in the workplace put the kibosh on hiring graduates with all-around degrees. Specialists were in vogue; they may not be able to compose a paragraph, or discuss, at any level, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, but they could count beans, or design widgets.
Mr. Hart, here is a dime. Take it, call your mother, and tell her there is serious doubt about you ever becoming a lawyer.
Professor Kingsfield to James Hart, The Paper Chase 1973
But shouldn’t education be about more than beans and widgets? We seem to have gone from “educating” to”training” over the last quarter century. Are colleges and universities becoming drone factories, pumping out highly-specialized individuals adept in one area? They used to say that a general practitioner was someone who learned less and less about more and more until he knew nothing about everything, while a specialist learned more and more about less and less until she knew everything about nothing.
I lament the fact that the once coveted all-around, diversified university degree has become a thing of the past.