The Myth of Higher Education

by Steve Mason

"With the cost of a college education going through the roof, what would you tell my grandson to study so he can be sure of getting a good job when he graduates?"
M. S., Monrovia, CA

If your grandson's main goal is to get a job, I would suggest he rethink the whole idea of going to college. There is, it seems, a major cause of confusion in our society because people don't understand the difference between education and training.

Education is akin to research and development in that one never knows where - if anywhere - it will eventually lead. It's certainly a nice luxury if one can afford it, and if one has the capacity to grow intellectually, but it's no guarantee of a steady income. Training, on the other hand, addresses the skills and knowledge necessary to do a job.

Traditionally, advanced education was reserved for just a tiny portion of the population, while all others learned a trade - and that was often through the apprentice system.

So how did education come to be associated with success? In the late 40's, a great many first generation college students enrolled in institutions of higher learning. This wave was mostly the result of WW2 veterans returning home and finding themselves eligible for free tuition - which, in turn, was simply the government's way of keeping all those able bodies from overwhelming the rapidly swelling labor force.

A second wave of townies went off to try and join the gownies during the 50's. This push was mostly the result of newly middle class parents hoping to keep up with the Jones. A third wave in the 60's brought the elephant in the room into sharp focus: intellect is not something that is democratically distributed.

It was obvious that not all who are exposed to higher education have the wherewithal to profit from it. But the myth that money was somehow tied to learning had by then become firmly entrenched, despite the fact that college professors often made less than plumbers.

A primary reason for this mythical assumption, equating education with income, was one of cause and effect. Parents with limited schooling thought that because successful people were often college graduates, it was the learning that lead to the earning. The truth was just the opposite. It was mostly those who already had money who went to college.

Of course, there were those who worked their way through school and into monied slots, but those were mostly schools that trained for a profession such as colleges of law, medicine, business, engineering, etc.

The following two jokes should make the difference between training and education clear: Four years ago, I couldn't spell engineer - now I are one. This is a readily understandable example of training, as opposed to: I have a Liberal Arts degree - do you want fries with that? This tells the tale of those who mistakenly equate education with a good job.

So what do you tell your grandson? If a job and the income it will provide are most important, then keep in mind that four years of education will cost not only the tuition and living expenses, but four years of lost earnings as well. He might want to consider using the hundred thousand to start a business, or perhaps he might want to consider attending a local community college - a hybrid that combines mostly remedial schooling with a form of apprenticeship. Stick to the computer technology or business management courses, and there might actually be a job available upon graduation.

The bottom line regarding a well-rounded education is that it has nothing to do with any kind of bottom line. Its value (non-monetary) is to be found in the quality that it adds to one's life. It allows one to better appreciate music and art, history and literature. It contributes to a better understanding of language and culture, nature and philosophy. It expands rather than limits horizons as it replaces faith and belief with reason and logic. Very simply, it teaches one to live - not to earn a living.

Unfortunately, it has become a frightfully expensive luxury in a materialistic society where the expert who knows more and more about less and less is the one who winds up with all the toys. So why, indeed, spend time contemplating Gibbon and Darwin when you can simply slap a few ribbons on your SUV and head for the mall?

Contact the author at DrSBMason at

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