Theses on the value of higher education

Last month I read in the New York Times that, as the costs of college rise and rise again, “college may become unaffordable for most in U.S.” That struck me as a wretched situation.

It’s probably also false. What’s actually happening, according to another article a few weeks later, is that applications to expensive private universities are dropping, while more students are probably going to go to cheaper schools, particularly public schools. But the question remains: if fewer people got to go to college, why would that be a bad thing? Or rather, what makes higher education valuable?

I have to say I’m skeptical about most of the arguments I’ve encountered in this arena. I have an intuition that there is something worth defending, but most of the existing arguments seem deeply flawed. Here I just want to outline some critical and methodological theses that seem to demand our attention.

  1. Sound arguments are neither necessary or sufficient for a thing’s existence or value. Higher education does not stand or fall on the basis of a sound argument in its favor. Many, probably most, teachers and students have no good argument to justify their activity, and that doesn’t necessarily make a difference. (Social practice, mercifully, need not be founded on philosophically valid premises.) Insofar as going to college has become a customary part of the life course for Americans of a certain social class, it can just become something that one does, almost as a matter of ritual. Does one go to college because it is valuable to do so, or does it come to seem valuable because one does it?
  2. Moreover, arguments for the value of higher education vary across time and place, and as a function of people’s social positions, interests and aims. To understand higher education, and thus to account for its value, is in part a matter of understanding the differentiated social worlds in which many different values are ascribed to the institution. How does one understand the value of a polymorphous institution, or reckon with value claims that are contested and plural? Any argument I could present here would equally take its place in this field of existing arguments, in tension or harmony with them, and would likewise have to examine its common origin in broader sociohistorical fields and processes.
  3. At a strictly logical level, there are different ways to structure arguments for the value of higher education. We have to make a number of conceptual choices just to pose an argument of this sort. For instance:
    1. Is higher education valuable as a process or as a product? Does the process, the sheer experience of higher education, taken as a polyphonic set of moments, matter, no matter how ephemeral its results? Or is it the product or outcome, the effect, the state of being educated, of having survived, of being credentialed, that matters? Or if both, how does one relate to the other?
    2. Relatedly, is it the formal aspect of higher education that is relevant to its value, or do we evaluate the whole life process associated with college? Are we thinking of higher education as what one’s supposed to learn in a classroom, or do we include the dorms, the frats, the clubs, the odd jobs, the late nights, the whole mythical American college experience?
    3. For whom is higher education valuable? I might argue that my college education was valuable to me as a single person, without making claims about the value of anyone else’s education; or that higher education is valuable to some social group or another; or even that higher education is valuable for society at large.
    4. What temporal horizon do we use to evaluate the value of higher education? An hour? A year? A century? Surely its value must change over time, just as higher education and its social contexts have changed drastically over time? And longer timespans tend to fit well with larger units of analysis. Perhaps higher education is valuable now, at this very moment, for some teenager in the midst of a transcendental intellectual awakening; perhaps on the other hand it has been valuable for society on the whole over the last five decades, promoting social mobility, as some argue.
    5. What kind of value do we ascribe to higher education? Is it in some sense intrinsically valuable? If so, what is its content such that it has intrinsic value – skills? knowledge? cultural awareness? habits of mind?* Or does one simply see education as intrinsically valuable without being able to explain why – which would most likely be rooted in the central cultural premise of formal education, which is that the state of being educated, whatever its content, is simply recognized as having a higher status than the state of “not being educated”?

      Or is higher education less intrinsically valuable than instrumentally useful, by opening up possibilities beyond itself — jobs, professions, worldviews, cultural affiliations? Or is it perhaps neither intrinsically nor instrumentally valuable, but rather valuable for its side-effects: the skills, for instance, one has to develop to cope with the contingent conditions of college life, skills for sociability, money, cuisine, stamina, and so on.* Or, finally, is higher education valuable because it is functionally necessary, inasmuch as it performs functions that “society” needs or desires? For instance, one might say that higher education is necessary for producing a skilled, flexible workforce, an informed and critical citizenship, a technocratic elite, a nation of depoliticized debt-laden consumers, or whatever.
    6. Do we argue for the value of higher education as it exists now? Or as it was in the past? Or in our nostalgic fantasy of its past or our utopian vision of its future? What degree of idealization should our arguments countenance? Does value reside in what something is, or in what it could be?

    These issues tend to overlap with each other, but I think they are each conceptually distinct, and I think in many cases there is no a priori reason to choose one way or another.

  4. I tend to hear two major sorts of arguments in circulation when it comes to higher education’s value. First, the vocational argument would have it, roughly, that higher education is good because it helps one to get a job, and indeed opens up routes to various high-status professions and occupations, not to mention greater wealth and income. At the individual level, this tends to become an instrumentalist argument: “it’s good to be wealthy” or even “college is a good investment.” At the societal level, it becomes a functionalist argument: “society needs higher education because it needs to reproduce a skilled workforce”.

    The problem with this argument, of course, is that college education is often not very good preparation for a job (with big exceptions in engineering, nursing, social work, and other applied fields), and that the university’s role in reproducing class hierarchy is not necessarily something to celebrate. I note that the potential for individuals to rise up in class status through higher education actually presupposes the continued existence of class hierarchy and inequality, at a structural level. If there were no hierarchy, there could be no mobility. Elite American universities, moreover, seem to have served for a long time as bastions of upper-class social reproduction. So this argument seems rather politically problematic (not to mention somewhat dismissive of the general education that college often involves).

    Second, a more liberal artsy argument holds that college need not (and probably should not) be directly vocationally relevant. Rather, higher education is reckoned valuable because it makes one a critical thinker, a creative and well-rounded person, knowledgeable, virtuous, autonomous, historically and politically and scientifically aware, fluent in foreign tongues. Sometimes this argument is linked to ideas about what a good citizen should be, about general culture, and so on.

    Like a good academic, I don’t have anything against this per se, but it strikes me that the values expressed here are actually those of a certain class of professors, universalized as if they ought to become everyone’s values. Critical thinking in particular is somewhat fetishized by academics, and tends to be mentioned almost robotically in defenses of higher education. Also, there may be troubling class polarization around these two arguments. Is it mostly the privileged who can go to liberal arts colleges, disdain immediate vocational utility, and in short, afford to pay for non-instrumentally-useful educations? If so, the former argument may be an argument given preferentially to the children of the privileged (though I don’t have statistics on this), and that would be disturbing.

    Andrew Abbott, for instance, told incoming University of Chicago students, in 2003, that education is good in itself simply because being educated makes one able to have more experience, richer, more meaningful and more complex experience, than an uneducated person. I won’t bother to refute this bit of anthropological lunacy here; I just want to note that, at a highly elite institution, Abbott specifically dismisses vocational training as a candidate for the value of education. Over at the nearest community college, Malcolm X, on the other hand, the most prominently displayed field is the most vocational: nursing.

  5. It would be easy to argue for the value of higher education if I were certain that scholarly knowledge is an authentically, intrinsically good thing, like my philosophy teacher in college, who once said directly that a culture without philosophy was an impoverished culture. If this were the case, it would certainly be easy to argue that it is desirable to become versed in scholarly ways.

    Alas, things are not so easy, since I am skeptical and ambivalent about the value of scholarly knowledge. It’s so easy to find things that are wrong with academic culture (isn’t that the very premise of this blog?). At the same time, it is just this skepticism and ambivalence that higher education, according to arguments about “critical thinking,” is supposed to impart. So perhaps it is a measure of the very success of higher education that one should become skeptical of its value.

  6. College is, for “traditional” students ages 18-21 or so, a phase in the lifecycle in which one doesn’t have to work. Of course, Marc Bousquet has demonstrated just how exploitative “student jobs” can get, and Jeff Williams emphasizes that student debt is a new form of indenture. So perhaps we should say: in which some people manage to avoid the full force of the work world for a few more years.

    Insofar as most jobs suck this may well be a valuable thing in itself.

  7. The value of higher education is something that is the subject of intense marketing and propaganda by colleges and universities themselves. It isn’t just that there is a socially determined field of arguments; the arguments themselves are politicized, politically and institutionally motivated.
  8. But one can nonetheless plausibly argue that, on the whole, it has been very good for those millions of Americans who have gotten to go to college, especially in the post-World-War-II era. Although that said, it may not have been good for all these people in the same way. Different kinds of people go to universities; it requires a charmingly universalistic value theory to imagine that its value would be identical for all of them.

… And yet if higher education is to become more scarce — or just more stratified – a general argument for its value would be a crucial political resource. Although I hate to say it: the most valid argument is not necessarily the most politically effective.

* Thanks to lauren berlant for great discussion of this issue, particularly on the points starred above.