Karl Douglass: 'Higher' education means … well, what?

February 22, 2014 

I get a kick out of talking to college-bound seniors. This time of year, I talk to a lot of them.

These students are often inspiring.

Hearing their stories make me wonder how I was able to stand out from the crowd when I applied to some of the more elite schools on my list.

At the same time, I have very mixed feelings about what they are saying about why they want to attend college and the types of things they want to study.

Let me say upfront that I am a staunch advocate for liberal arts education. That's liberal arts as in reading, writing and thinking, not liberal as relates to social and economic issues. My liberal arts education has paid for itself hundreds if not thousands of times over because it taught me how to learn. With just a handful of exceptions, I have never resisted taking on new challenges because if someone in the world knows how to do something, I know how to learn how to do the same thing. That skill is invaluable.

But it is a hard skill to describe on a resume. When a job applicant says, "I am a quick study." or "I am eager to learn." or, my favorite, "I am very coachable," most interviewers interpret those statements to mean "I lack any experience applicable to this position."

For the last two decades, if not longer, there has been a steady movement to align education directly with employment. Generally, we have shifted away from the Jeffersonian ideals of learning for the preservation of our democracy or learning for learning's sake. When we hear a college bound senior say that he or she is going to spend the next four years studying art history or something similar, most of us -- sometimes myself included -- immediately ask, "What are you going to do with that degree?" Then we suggest that the student consider studying business or minoring in education so he or she can get a teaching certificate "to fall back on."

And because students hear their parents, mentors and other adults around them say these things, they develop a set of values that places money-making professional majors like engineering, chemistry and business over fuzzy liberal arts majors like philosophy, sociology and women's studies.

Then they come talk to guys like me about their plans for college.

I admit, I am thoroughly impressed when a second-semester senior can sit down with me and map out not only what school he or she wants to attend, but how the studies he or she will pursue will lead to a great professional life. However, such a degree of focus also makes me wonder whether that student believes that learning is useful whether or not what you learn leads to a six figure salary.

I am convinced that learning how to learn is the best education available. I also realize that learning that helps one earn is a bankable asset. As a new graduation season approaches, my prayer is that more students will find a better balance between the two.

Karl Douglass, Columbus native and resident, is a frequent commenter on local, state and federal politics. Follow him on Twitter@KarlDouglass or facebook.com/karldouglass.

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