...except for me and my monkey! "Everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see." -Rene Magritte

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

In defense of the Academy

Yesterday in Game Theory, Bekar was talking about how college education is nothing but one big signalling device, in game theoretical terms: something that you do to signal something about your background, your intentions, your actions, blah to your opponent. By graduating with a Lewis & Clark degree, what I'm signalling to a potential employer is not how smart I am or how hard I worked or what I majored in, but how much money and time I was willing to sink into a degree, and that's why a Harvard degree is worth more than an LC degree: not because Harvard is demonstrably harder to graduate from, because it's not (as they say, the hardest thing about Harvard is getting in) but because there's this assumption that it's more expensive and therefore more elite and therefore more prestigious and therefore worth more to employers. According to Bekar, nothing we do in college really makes any difference as long as we graduate, because employers aren't going to look at our GPAs or our transcripts or how many times we missed class, but at the price tag on the diploma. What's more, as a highly motivated scholarship student, I'm wasting my time to a greater degree than a perpetually stoned slacker is wasting his or her time, because I'm losing four years I could be spending climbing the corporate ladder in a college program that is, ultimately, devoid of most of the meaning with which we normally associate it. The stoned slacker isn't wasting his or her time, because what else is he or she going to be doing? Flipping burgers?

Bullshit.

I can accept elements of his argument: that the majority of liberal arts students aren't learning definite skills (you know, bow-hunting skills, numchuck skills, computer-hacking skills...) that they'll be using in their post-college employment. And I understand that unless a student is going on to academia (which I am, probably, so ha), what he or she majors in isn't going to affect his or her first job out of college, or even any job after that. But as I sat in that classroom, listening to him deride the intellectual basis of the Academy, I felt a vague sense of growing depression and anger within me until every fiber of my being was crying out in protest No! Education is worth it, and not because of the jobs to which it will lead, but because education and intellectualism and the free exchange of ideas are the most beautiful things and the most precious ideas in the world.

I love learning, and by that I don't necessarily mean school, or college all the time--God knows I wasn't jumping out of bed every morning in high school, all "Oh boy! I get to go to school today!" But even then I had some sense of the enormous gift and privilege of education. I think that's why I have very little respect for people who take the easiest classes possible, or who only do the minimum, or who skate by, even though according to Bekar and the game theoretical model they're doing exactly what they should be doing. I believe in challenging oneself. I believe in pushing oneself. I believe in the power and beauty of the exchange of ideas. I believe it is through education that we transcend our own world and become, at the same time, more fully and completely and perfectly ourselves. That's why I'm taking Game Theory in the first place, for chrissake: it's not the easiest way to complete the quantitative general education requirement, and it's almost certainly going to be a (hopefully minor) knock to my GPA, but I don't want to take the easy way out and waste four credits and three hours a week on some dumb-ass opt-out, because I would never be able to respect myself for taking that class. Game Theory is interesting and difficult, and even if I get a C I'd feel like a more complete person for having taken it.

That's the whole philosophy behind the liberal arts, you know? I may not be learning specific skills in my Religious Studies classes (although actually I am, since I want to go into the study of religion, and the classes I'm taking now provide the background upon which I build my postgraduate work), but I'm learning how to think. How to engage with ideas. How to be. And I know that regardless of what I do after I graduate--whether I go on to seminary, or join the Peace Corps, or work for a nonprofit, or at Starbucks, or get married and have a million babies--regardless of what work I do, I know that my education and my college degree will have served me well, because they will have helped shape the window through which I view the world.

The imperative to explore. Knowledge has to be integrated into service in the world and ethical considerations, obviously, don't get me wrong: that's a large part of the reason that I can't get behind the idea of Mars exploration. The pursuit of knowledge cannot come at the expense of compassion and social and economic justice. But we don't have to go to Mars to further humanity. Reading, discussing, conversing with others, exploring new cultures and ideas and philosophies: that's the value of education. That's the value of college, and it is worth it.

There is nothing more precious, in my mind, than learning for learning's sake.