14 February 2011

Higher Education is like Travelling

When asked, I tell people that I don't like travelling. All the moving about from one place to another just to see the tourists' view of a city just doesn't appeal to me. Many have thought it strange that I wouldn't like to explore or discover a new place, or "to see the world," given that I have the financial means and am in the age group that stereotypically like that sort of thing.

But I do like to explore and discover new places, and to learn and see new things. I just go about it differently: namely through continuing education, independent learning and reading, and higher education [1].

I've asked previously what good is higher education, given all it's costs and sometimes failures at helping students become highly employable.  But for some of us, higher education is really about exploring and discovering for the sake of itself.

Learning for the sake of learning — it sounds cliché, but most people wouldn't fault travelling for costing so much and for producing travellers who do not become highly employable.  So why fault higher education for those things?


It seems for many, higher education has become synonymous with career training and professional development. That's why when higher education fails to produce good careers and returns on investment, higher education is blamed — because higher education has failed, for them, to be a good tool for career development.

I would suggest that understanding higher education as career and professional training is highly problematic. The synonymy between the two probably developed because people originally saw that students with a university degree more than likely did better in their career, and so it seems higher education must be good career development.

Of course, that ignores the possibility that people who would usually succeed in higher education would probably succeed in the workplace as well, regardless of any higher education. That is, having a university degree might originally have just been a symptom that the person would make a good worker, and the education by itself didn't confer any benefits [2].

But thinking along those lines presume all we are thinking about is career development, and returns on investment paid as tuition. What if we rethink the reasons for seeking higher education?  To help the rethinking, I suggest considering why people like to travel.

Travelling is fun, you get to meet new people, see new things, learn new culture, discover new places, get away from where you usually live, etc. And higher education is every one of those things too.

High education could be for the purpose of "turn[ing] away from the vices and distractions of the world toward a higher life — often a deeply intellectual one" (Benton), to have fun, meet new people, and to discover and learn about a whole different world that most know nothing about.

For example, a world of subatomic particles, or a universe nanoseconds after the Big Bang — for physics students.  A world of perfect geometry, or possibly of transfinite numbers — for math students.  A world of algorithms that allows a computer to learn about the world on its own, or to possibly understand natural language — for students studying artificial intelligence.

In short, higher education can be a place to travel to a world of wonder that no plane, ship, or car can bring you to.  And that's what higher education can be for.

Mind you, higher education isn't the only way to such a world of wonder. It is but one way. Of course, everyone has to figure out how to put food on the table for themselves and their family too. So to expand one's intellectual horizon doesn't need to be the only reason for seeking higher education: building a better career can be but one more reason to seek it.

Although hopefully higher education will help you find a job — just as some may hope that travelling the world might also help (and it might, if you're looking to be a travel writer or tour guide) — it's still important we don't lose sight that having a university degree doesn't entity you to a job, and the university courses may well not teach you what you need to know to do a job well.

That's not higher education's fault though. It might be the specific college or university that's at fault for marketing what they do that way, and then coming up short on the delivery. It might be the company you work at that's at fault for not offering sufficient professional development opportunities or better on-boarding processes.


Unfortunately, a lot of money is now being poured into higher education by government, encouraged by companies demanding better trained workers (companies that apparently expect the government use tax money to train workers for them). This trend is slowly turning higher education into a purely professional career training industry, and less of a place to learn and wonder freely.

Higher education conceived of not as an industry, but as a kind of monastic way of life, doesn't pretend to make you employable (although it might).  Rather, it can be for making people better through exposing them to a world of wondrous challenges and problems, the solutions to which are its own reward [3].

There is, of course, a natural tension between the two extremes of specific job training vs. completely free and open inquiry — and it might be best that we separate universities into two kinds that serve each independently — but until then, let's keep in mind that one of the most important things higher education is for, is learning for the sake of learning.

[1] That's in addition to all the mountain hiking and scrambling I like to do, but this post is about education, so let's move on.

[2] There already a lot of discussion on the signalling theory of education, so I won't go down that road.

[3] To echo Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes in "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle": "Chance has put in our way a most singular and whimsical problem, and its solution is its own reward."

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