“Want College to Pay off?” the headline asks. It depresses me. I’m an unapologetic idealist. Cost-benefit analysis has its place, but that’s not all there is to education. Or better yet, cost-benefit analysis isn’t just about money. The article has suggestions for finding good paying jobs, which is what higher education is all about these days. Getting an education to increase knowledge and to benefit society in that way has become the mark of true naivety. We tell our kids not to study the arts, humanities, or literature since there are no jobs in these fields. We want them to be able to survive in a culture that has cool devices but which has lost its soul. Pretty strange for an institution (or “industry”) that began primarily to study theology.
The earliest universities focused on the then-related fields of law and theology. Since people took religion seriously, this was not the mere diversion that it is today. There are those counter-cultural warriors who study theology to take parishes to combat their increasing irrelevance, but really, the study of law and theology parted ways long ago. Neither one guarantees the return on investment that they used to. Society’s interests are in racing ahead with technology—discovering even faster ways to text while driving, or better ways to ignore those walking down the street with you. Or making money so you can build large towers in major cities and name them after yourself. We call that success. Thinking deeply about an issue, looking at it from multiple angles, and critically assessing it, these are “luxuries” that aren’t “worth” studying. College must, as the headlines say, pay off.
The rapidity with which this has transpired is truly amazing. We allow electronics to drive our culture. Who has time to keep up with all the posts, tweets, and grams that populate every second of every hour? We crowd-sourced knowledge into some great wikipedia of human experience that substitutes for taking time to look closely and think through the implications. It’s not that I despise technology—I use it quite happily daily—it’s just that I think there’s something more. I studied ancient religions and I see many of those archaic patterns beginning to repeat themselves in electronic format. It’s as if by replacing theology with technology we’ve lost sight of just a piece of what kept progress moving forward. Maybe I need to go back to college. I’m just not sure of the cost-benefit analysis.