Column: Don’t come to college to get a degree — get an education

By Trent Cason

Oklahoma Daily, U. Oklahoma via UWIRE

How do you get an English major off of your porch? Pay for the pizza.

I see this idea constantly in articles, cartoons and blogs, and it drives me crazy: “A liberal arts degree is useless in this job market.”

I don’t know if the intended purpose is to scare away potential liberal arts students or to pressure universities to focus more on vocation-specific types of training or just to make people like me furious.

The liberal arts, as I understand it, are a field of academic studies meant to develop the intellectual abilities of the student, as opposed to occupational training, which prepares the student for a specific job.

I’m 30. I’ve been out there in the job market since I was 18, doing everything from working behind a counter to construction to working on a fishing boat to serving on the ground in Iraq. I don’t mind manual labor — I never have — and as such, I will forever have a Plan B that I know won’t kill me.

I’m not in college to obtain a degree; I’m in college to obtain an education.

If, after grad school, I find myself back on a building site or back in a uniform, so be it. If that happens, I know I’ll have the wherewithal to make the most out of any situation life throws at me. And believe me, life can throw a curveball.

The obsession with the liberal arts degree and the downplay of the education gained is a big problem right now, I think — the idea that it is the degree and not the education that gets a person where they want to be in life. For some professions, the degree is certainly important, but it’s the quality of learning that takes place while earning the degree that seems to generally determine how successful one is likely to be.

Of course I want my physician to have a degree from a reputable institution, but more than that, I want him to really know what he is doing. If you haven’t had a bad doctor experience, please trust me: Graduation from medical school alone isn’t enough. If it was, people wouldn’t have the wrong limbs occasionally amputated, or in my case, the wrong medicine prescribed (almost fatally).

The bachelor’s of arts today is the vestigial remnant of the once mighty Trivium (grammar, rhetoric, logic) and Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy). Since classical antiquity, this education model has created citizens as opposed to strictly workers. Most of the notable minds we encounter in our studies at the university level had such an education, including almost all of those credited with founding this country, though most of them had law degrees as well.

The result of this kind of educational worldliness, obviously, is the ability to ask and begin to answer questions that are bigger than ourselves and even our societies. The really big ideas don’t just occur to people — they are sought out, historically, by people who took the time to train their brains to do the work. Not to say that getting a liberal arts degree will make you John Adams or Thomas Jefferson, but at least you will be able to read their work and follow along.

While degrees shouldn’t matter as much as the quality of education, they do in many cases, and a sad reality is still reality: Your bachelor’s of arts might not be enough. The same goes for the business majors and the biology majors and everyone else, really.

To be competitive in a non-entrepreneurial setting, it’s a good idea to go beyond the four-year degree, even if you have to work while you do it. A minor in a business or computer science field also can help widen your job-searching net. Give yourself as many tools as you can to succeed, but the last thing you want to do is graduate from college having learned to do a job but having failed to learn how to live and what it is that you love.

It’s a scary world out there, and graduating into it can be overwhelming. Don’t let the fear of not owning a yacht stop you from pursuing what you are passionate about. This country desperately needs many more people capable of thinking on their own, drawing their own conclusions and acting on those instead of what is popular or partisan.

Don’t let public opinion convince you that critical thinking and knowledge of humanity are unnecessary and frivolous. On the contrary, you can use those skills and knowledge to adapt to any work or living situation, which in this ever-changing modern economic landscape will be more useful in the long run.

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