Personal Worth Can Lie Outside of Education

Last week, the Dean of Students and Vice Provost for Student Enrollment at Claremont Graduate University, Fred Siegel, wrote a defense of graduate education. After wondering whether TSL received sufficient payment for publishing what was essentially an advertisement, I began to consider how my own attitudes toward graduate school, along with higher education in general, compared to those of Siegel.

Throughout the article, Siegel lauds graduate education as an “investment” that is sure to yield “rich dividends” for those who exploit it. His reliance on a financial conception of scholarship is interesting; he appeals to a sensibility that monetizes success, a sensibility that casts the student as nothing more than a stockholder in a capitalist society. Yet in reading Siegel’s argument, I could not help but think—and hope—that many people hold notions of success that equate to more than mere dollars and cents.

First, I noted Siegel’s assertion that “not until recently was the value of education ever questioned to the extent that it is today.” I agree with Siegel that an insidious tendency to distrust academia has hindered American discourse; when politicians—typically those with conservative views—attack so-called “ivory tower intellectuals,” they indeed threaten to endorse narrow-minded thinking. I would contend, however, that the opposing prejudice, which sees formal education as the sole route to wisdom, is both equally common and equally harmful to society. When Siegel quotes former Harvard University President Derek Bok and frames “ignorance” as the single, costly alternative to remaining in school, he erases any distinction between carrying a Ph.D. and possessing intelligence.

Moreover, avoiding ignorance appears—at least in Siegel’s formula for success—to be inseparable from financial gain and economic self-interest. He claims that individuals with graduate degrees “move themselves ahead of the ‘crowd,’” citing statistics that demonstrate a strong correlation between income and level of education. The existence of any such “crowd,” which is dubious in itself, is, in Siegel’s view, an obstacle to self-realization; any efforts at forging an independent identity are, apparently, only possible with a professional career and a six-figure salary.

Siegel goes on to ask, “[H]ave you yourself ever questioned the need for your undergraduate degree?” As a matter of fact, I have, and I would hope that other students at the 5Cs have done so as well. I did not, as Siegel suggests, blindly accept a predestined future that placed me in higher education; I only “knew” that I would attend college after realizing I craved intellectual stimulation and self-discovery. In fact, Siegel’s broad advice to fixate on the “long term” is also problematic. I recognize setting goals for ourselves is advisable, but desperate efforts to predict our future basically prohibit any introspection in the present. In regarding education, or any other institution, as a mere means to an end, we risk deferring to convention without ever realizing what we actually want.

I cannot deny that Siegel believes in at least one principle that coheres with my own values: He emphasizes that enacting “change” is necessary to achieve self-fulfillment. At the same time, my interpretation of change appears to differ starkly from his, since I refuse to accept that one’s ability to improve the world correlates directly with the time one spends in school. The idea that someone who wants to be an elementary school teacher needs as much formal education as someone applying to law school is absurd in itself, but the idea that he or she somehow offers a less valid contribution to society is even more so.

My intention, of course, is not simply to lambast higher education; the chances that I myself will attend graduate school are fairly high. If I choose to continue my education after earning a bachelor’s degree, however, it will be because I have decided that attending graduate school fits into my personal schema of self-fulfillment. It will not be because I wish to enter some sort of rat race that pits me against the rest of society. It will also not be because I have consented to an economic interpretation of success without considering my autonomy.

For a large number of people, graduate education is indeed a valuable asset on the path to self-fulfillment. We should be working to make all forms of higher education more accessible—especially to those in underprivileged groups, who often lack the cultural capital to follow their dreams. The source of my disagreement, most generally, is that Siegel neglects to envision any form of individual development that occurs outside of a classroom. If—after reflecting on your own values rather than those of a larger society—you decide that a graduate degree will help realize your idea of success, then by all means work to obtain one. Until then, try to figure out just what sort of “change” you hope to galvanize.

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