Why I Went to University

“We’ve bought into the idea that education is about training and ‘success’, defined monetarily, rather than learning to think critically and to challenge. We should not forget that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers. A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, which fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death.”               Chris Hedges

I know of Chris Hedges as an author but I haven’t read his work so I can’t say whether or not I agree with him in total but a friend posted this quote to Facebook and it struck me as exactly what I’ve been thinking about education for a long time.

At the beginning of my university career I was dabbling with the idea of a double major and taking a lot of history courses. One of the best classes I took was Medieval European History. When we studied the formation of universities I was struck by how different our ideas of education and university are now from their origins. Universities weren’t formed to provide people with jobs, they were places where those with the leisure and finances could gather to learn and to exchange ideas. Knowledge alone was the goal. I don’t know exactly where the purpose of universities veered from this path but my thought is that it’s fairly recent. My generation are, by and large, the children of baby boomers. Our parents, if they went to university, could usually be confident of securing jobs when they came out. A university degree made them stand out from the crowd. Because of this, many of our parents encouraged us to go to university. Not to learn more necessarily, but to ensure that we would go on to have steady and successful  careers (ie: make money). And we believed that to be true. So we took on student debt or our parents took on debt or we worked long hours between classes and we got that coveted degree. (This study from StatsCanada looks at the increased numbers of university graduates as compared to their parents.)

You don’t need to look far in Canada to see disillusionment among university graduates. We’re in debt, we’re educated, and we’re unemployed. Some of us go back to school to earn more degrees, hoping that will make us stand out. Some of us settle into jobs unrelated to our degrees. Some of us move to Chilliwack. I know not everybody my age has a university degree but it is also my experience that having a bachelor’s degree in your twenties doesn’t make you stand out in a crowd. I would go as far to say that if you don’t have a bachelor’s degree many employers will wonder what’s wrong with you. Even if a degree isn’t necessary for the job.

Were we lied to? Perhaps. Perhaps our parents had unrealistic expectations. Perhaps universities are just businesses looking for our money.

Both of my parents have university degrees and so I always expected to follow suit and pursue post-secondary education. Going in to grade 12 I didn’t know what I wanted to study or where I wanted to go to school. I remember being frustrated with my high school counsellor who offered no more guidance than the basic Arts program at UBC. I considered delaying university and working for a while but also felt there was a lot of stigma around doing that. I happened to read an article in the newspaper about the Creative Writing program at UVic and I’m sure to this day that God led me to Victoria. I have never doubted that I went to the school I should have and studied what I should have studied. That said, I have a Fine Arts degree and so I never had much expectation of falling into a job after graduation. I also graduated from university in 2008 – not the finest financial year in our country’s history.

I loved university because I loved what I studied. I loved being surrounded by people who also loved literature and words and art and were passionate and talented. I loved being able to learn from professors who were talented in their field and interested in what I had to offer. I loved taking courses that ended up having nothing to do with my actual degree (like Medieval History and Music). For me, my years at UVic were perhaps the only time in my life that I will be able to devote myself entirely to learning. Because I wasn’t pursuing a “practical” degree, I simply tried to gain as much knowledge as I possibly could and become a better writer than I was when I started. I graduated from university a smarter, more well-rounded individual. And I think that’s exactly what university should be for.

If I have kids one day and they don’t want to go to university, I don’t think I’ll have a problem with that. If they want to be plumbers, I’ll support that because tradespeople seem to be doing well and someone’s gotta take care of me in my old age. Mostly, I just hope I have kids who want to learn and see value in education, wherever that might be. I’ll tell them that university is great but don’t expect it to make much difference in your job prospects after you finish. I’ll tell them that knowledge is important and I want them to chase after it, not simply financial gain.

So, yes, many of us who are recent university graduates have not gotten out of university what we thought we would. I don’t think we’re wrong to be upset at a system that led us to believe something that wasn’t true. Let’s look farther back though for our expectations of university. Let’s put a higher value on knowledge, not just the amount of money we can make after graduation. Let’s move away from the expectation and pressure to have a university degree and instead embrace the pursuit of knowledge, wherever that may be found.

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