My column in today’s Greenville News. Do we determine our ‘worth’ by the degrees we hold?  I hope not.


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My wife and I spent a lot of time in school.  Jan has a Master’s in counseling. I have a medical degree. Our poor kids are saddled with parents who really believe in higher education.  We were both driven, hard-working students who were horrified at the idea of failure.  Ultimately, those traits helped us to navigate the winding labyrinth of higher education from high-school on up.

In our culture, a college education is held in high regard.  Many Americans define themselves by their degrees.  And within that universe of degrees, many define themselves by their Alma Maters.  This is so much the case that parents spend shocking sums of money for their children to attend ‘the right’ pre-schools, so that they can go to ‘the right’ grade-schools, high-schools, and can then spend even more impressive amounts on ‘the right’ universities and graduate programs.  To many Americans, education is the essence of identity.  While I’m less concerned with the ‘name-brand’ aspect of the school, I want my children not only to go to college, but to have at least a four-year-degree.  And frankly, I’d prefer for them to have graduate degrees.  But I think I need to ask if I want that for the right reasons.

For quite some time, the political and academic policy-makers of our nation have been operating under the assumption that everyone should go to college.  We have student loan programs, grants and quotas and we go through all sorts of machinations to encourage college education (and its unfortunate natural association, indebtedness).

It’s a nice sentiment.  Certainly, a college education is a wonderful, valuable thing for some people. I’m not trying to discourage or devalue it.  But what I’m wondering is this:  do we associate individual worth with level of education?  And if so, why?

A college education hopefully teaches students useful skills and widens their perspectives on other people, on the past and the future.  But does it make anyone…better?  Does it make us moral?  Does it make us more valuable than anyone else on some fundamental level?

If our kids don’t go to college (and I address this particularly to those parents with degrees), will they disappoint us?  And if so, why?  Will we tell our friends that we keep hoping they’ll go back to school one day?  Will we (God forbid) give our ‘uncolleged’ children the ‘I’m so disappointed in you for not reaching your potential…’ lecture?  And if we do, will it be based on their earning potential?  Or their social status?  Or on our own pride?

Some in America believe that the way to stop people from committing crimes is for them to be financially successful…and educated.  Is that why we focus so much on college? Because if so, it’s a fallacy.  Rich, learned people have always been as capable of wrong as the poor and unschooled.

Or is it our modern confidence in educational institutions and educators themselves? For the last 100 years or so, we have been conditioned to believe that education properly occurs only in a formal educational setting, and is provided by professional educators.  (Not, of course, by reading books or experiencing life or doing a job well.)  Great men and women from history, open-source online education, the home-school movement and the public library are all evidence that one can be educated in many ways, to great effect.

Maybe it stems from a belief that the life of the mind is superior to the life of physical work.  Or that if we work with our hands and bodies, we are susceptible to injury and loss of income, but if we work with our minds, we are not.  Of course, people have strokes and head injuries and any number of neurologic diseases which render that line of thinking false.

One can do any job and be intelligent, or have any degree of education and be moral and good; or bad.  The lowliest laborer can be a sage; Socrates had no degree.  He was a stone-mason.  And I read nothing in the Sermon on the Mount that says ‘Blessed are the educated, for they are better than anyone else.’ The Constitution makes no such demarcations either.

Education is wonderful and elevates the educated.  But so does reading and work and travel.  As such, America shouldn’t be a place of educational aristocracy, but of educational diversity.

And most important, we must always struggle against the belief that anyone’s degree of worth is defined by the worth (or absence) of a degree.



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