Re-examining the Value of Higher Education

The Claremont Colleges have the virtue of being reflective about the education that they provide. Students, administrators, and faculty all often publicly engage in soul-searching about both what the purpose of education is and how successful the 5Cs are in achieving it. A theme common to most of these reflections is the idea that the recipients of a liberal arts education ought to somehow use it to better the wider world. This idea is visible even in the inscription on the south side of Pomona College's gate: “They only are loyal to this college who, departing, bear their added riches in trust for mankind.” The ideal student uses the cognitive gifts that education has provided to better the human condition.

This is a reasonable enough goal, but it is unclear how exactly one uses a liberal arts education to accomplish the greater good. Broadly speaking, there are two competing models of the ideal postgraduate life, each accompanied by their own exhortations and institutional pressures. The first is a traditional idea of professional success: the ideal students in this model go on to become highly effective and highly paid businesspeople, technologists, and financiers.

The reasons that students might want to follow this model ought to be familiar to any one of the many students here who feel the need to major in something “practical.” The pressure to fulfill this model of student life comes from the fear of becoming economically insecure. In addition, this concept of “practicality” carries with it not only the promise of economic security, but the power to affect the world that economic security brings. Liberal arts education allows the student to effectively advance her interests by succeeding according to the model that society has already laid out.

In opposition is the model of student as activist-in-training. The ideal student, according to this model, is a kind of doctor for society; they use their education to both diagnose society's ills and figure out how to treat them. The students who prescribe to this model often end up working in politics, art, and the nonprofit sector. Those who defend this model often use the assumption that the mission of a liberal arts college either is or ought to be socially- and publicly-oriented. For example, an April 2015 TSL op-ed entitled “When Nerdy Becomes Trendy” criticized the corporate influence on the 5Cs by referring to the aforementioned inscription on Pomona's gate; “bearing added riches in trust for mankind” is, according to articles like these, incompatible with pursuing monetary benefit.

These two models clash in several important ways, but I argue that they have a very important underlying similarity: Namely, they both assume that the underlying value of education is instrumental rather than intrinsic. Whether the graduates of the Claremont Colleges would make the best use of their education working within society's values or challenging them, the idea that education works solely towards one of those purposes renders subordinate the intrinsically intellectual satisfaction one gets from a broad liberal arts education.

Consider by way of example the well-worn debate on pre-professionalism at the Claremont Colleges and the resultant rise in majors in STEM, economics, and other “practical” fields. Those who believe that the rise of pre-professionalism is negative cite the conformity that it engenders, implying that the purpose of education ought to be to get students to challenge established societal norms. While the articles and speeches propounding this point of view attempt to discuss the less-utilitarian attributes of education, they often only go so far as to cite self-discovery and personal growth, ignoring that intellectual discovery is valuable independent of how or if it directly helps anyone on their path in life. There is an objective and aesthetic value to intellectual progress that no one in the debate seems to acknowledge.

One might argue that while intellectual progress may have intrinsic value, its instrumental values ought to be talked about more because they more directly affect people's lives. By contrast, I'd argue that the objective value of intellectual progress ought to be superordinate to its instrumental value in public discourse exactly because it has little to no direct effect on anyone's life. The mathematician G.H. Hardy discusses both the aesthetic value and the utility of pure mathematics in  “A Mathematician's Apology.” According to Hardy, the pleasure one takes in doing mathematics is purely aesthetic and intellectual; he says that mathematics is “useless,” in the sense that it does not directly enable technological advances in the same way that the natural sciences do. However, Hardy considers this to be a point in favor of pure mathematics, as technological advances can both do great good and great evil.

This argument works on any model of education that emphasizes its instrumental benefits over what makes it intrinsically valuable. Those who work to become either professionally successful or do good for the world may inadvertently cause great harm as a result of their efforts. For example, the chemist Thomas Midgley Jr. led the effort to synthesize chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), a refrigerant that has been used in air conditioners, refrigerators, and foam insulation. It was many years after his death that it was discovered that CFCs both deplete the ozone layer and act as a greenhouse gas. Midgley did his best to use his technical education to both succeed professionally and to make the world a better place, but for reasons that he could not have possibly known, he ended up causing the world great harm instead.

The intrinsic value of education is not so vulnerable to the whims of the universe. No matter what happens in the external world, the aesthetic and personally fulfilling aspects of the intellectual realm remain unwaveringly good. The instrumental value of higher education is contingent, unreliable, and ultimately unessential to what makes education invariantly valuable across circumstances and historical periods.

I do not mean to argue that the Claremont Colleges ought to ignore education's instrumental value, or that any attempt to make a positive impact on the world is doomed to failure. If the students at the Claremont Colleges cared only for the purely intellectual aspects of their education, they would rightfully be called apathetic and solipsistic. But given that circumstances beyond anyone's control may impinge on one's ability to make a positive impact on the world with their education, there ought to be more focus on the value of learning for its own sake in the discourse on the mission of the college than there is.

The intrinsic value of education is more central to what education essentially is than its instrumental value. As such, educational institutions ought to think of their mission as primarily to communicate education's intrinsic value, not its instrumental value. The best-educated people with the best intentions may fail in their endeavours, but that does not mean that their education was wholly worthless. The intrinsic value of education has a purity that its instrumental value lacks exactly because of how little it affects the real world. 

William Schumacher PO '18 is majoring in philosophy and computer science. He is interested in literature and the politics of technology.

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