Education, Pro or Con?

“…despite having gone back to college numerous times to update my skills…. I think I’ve finally given up on that, considering how little it gained me in the long term.”

That snippet is from my previous post. I know my college professor friends think I’m an idiot to believe that education does not necessarily directly benefit me. I know that my other friends with PhDs think the same. I can’t argue with them on the statistics. It’s easy to find statistics absolutely proving that further education, and specifically an additional college degree, assures people additional income for life. has a cute graphic showing that someone with a mere bachelor’s degree will earn only half of what someone with a professional degree will. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has an even better graphic directly comparing the rate of unemployment against the level of education that we receive. Want to be unemployed? Don’t finish high school. Want to earn more than $1,500 a week? Get a doctoral degree. Moreover, if you want to bridge the gender and racial gap in earnings, the way to do it is to get further education. Highly educated women earn more than so-so educated men. Highly educated women of color earn more than so-so educated white men.

All my life I have believed in the value of education in a cultural sense. Education is what connects us to our historical past. Education enriches our lives. It is the opposite of ignorance. But as I have gotten older, I have realized that not all my education has stuck with me. In particular, the education that was specifically designed to gain me a job. I’ve taken computer classes whose knowledge I could not apply directly because I did not have employment that required me to use the program. Buying the program for myself would have cost more than the class. How many of us personally own a copy of Quark, for instance? How many of us, who have PowerPoint on our computers free, create PowerPoint presentations just for fun? High school courses on computer programs are usually out of date even when offered. College courses can be, too, so you go the commercial route, to a trade school. These classes are very expensive, and most people in them are being paid for by their employer. If you are not, then you’ve got a problem because you risk losing your newly gained expertise if you don’t have an arena in which to use it constantly. It looks nice on my resume to say that I know Quark, but a one-week seminar, no matter how expensive, does not give mastery in a program.

What is education for, then? It’s for teaching us how to think. Everything else is a mere list of facts or formulas, all of which can be forgotten or become outdated. Knowing how to think applies to every situation in our lives on a daily basis. But even patterns of thought can become antiquated and dysfunctional, so the continuing value of education is in showing us how to think differently as circumstances change.

How we gain our education is the question. For young people, I would always recommend college because it exposes you to a wider world than you’re likely to have met previously. For older people who want to switch careers, further formal education makes sense and can give you a cohort of contacts who will become your new network. But there are others of us who don’t need another class or mastery of yet another application. We need to rethink how we’re dealing with our circumstances, how to make the subtle yet significant changes that will change the outcomes we’ve typically achieved in the past. Sometimes it’s easier to sign up for a course and pay for it than to acknowledge that our behavior or attitude is more significant in determining our worldly success than the list of degrees and certifications after our names. Sometimes we get sold the idea that more education, specifically new job training, will change our lives. For most people, it won’t, unless what is activated during the class is the desire to think differently and act differently.

On balance, I’m not against formal education, but I think that for me, right now, it’s not the answer. That does not mean that ten years from now I won’t decide to return to college for another degree.


  1. When it comes to the value and purpose of education, it really depends on what you mean by education. You don’t need classes or degrees to become “educated” in the high-falutin’ sense: PBS, the internet, and just plain reading books are much, much cheaper and better.

    As a faculty member at a liberal arts college I am continually bombarded by crap from the administration about the value of a liberal education in teaching students how to think yada-yada-yada. This is complete bullshit. The whole purpose of college is job-training and credentialing. You don’t pay those big bucks to be edified and improved: you pay so that you can achieve upper middle class status; you pay to avoid boring work and contact with the lower class stinking shit. I went to college to be trained and credentialed for a college professor job.

    • irenevartanoff

      I know someone who took the uber-expensive Stanford Publishing Course, and that got the person exactly nowhere. I know someone with an MBA from a top school who has no job. I also know people who took courses in Excel who don’t remember how to use it. Those are all meant to be job training. Yet the results depend on personality. Possibly, the degree or the course gets you the interview, but screw up there because you never learned enough about how to present yourself pleasantly to strangers, and all that formal education counts for nothing. Meanwhile, those time-sensitive job skills, that mastery of computer applications–all of it is rotting from disuse.

    • For profit schools are largely a scam and the little courses, in Excel or whatever, are for individuals who are already employed and need extra credentials or skills to get a bump up.

      Of course it’s always a crap-shoot and even a few people with good MBAs will fall through the cracks. But it’s a matter of proportions. You simply go for the fanciest possible degree from the most highly ranked college, preferably with a major that involves all the math you can handle. Personality and presentation sink into the background if you have credentials and real technical skills–and that means science/math/engineering, technical skills that not everyone can master.

      I still regret not transferring: my undergraduate degree is garbage. I wasn’t advised properly, and on top of that was reinforced and rewarded for counterproductive behavior. Faculty seem to have assumed that we were so rich that we wouldn’t need to work or so well-connected that we could get whatever jobs we wanted or so flakey that we just wanted to wander around doing artsy-craftsy things and finding ourselves.

      I try to be more responsible in advising. I just helped one of my advisees get transfer to Cornell. This guy had a superb hs record, very high SATs and was a star football player to boot. I asked him, “Why in hell did you come here in the first place?” Something I’m not supposed to ask. He just shrugged. The fact is that in choosing a college you should just look at the rankings and to the the highest up one you can get into. Period.

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