Just how practical is a university education?
People love to tease professors for being absent-minded and a little out of touch. Legislators sometimes become more than a little upset that higher education is not more practical, but instead appears to reside in some ivory tower, separated from the real world.
Most of us in academe work on a campus with manicured lawns and lovely buildings. We work only ten months a year. And we spend our time on esoteric fields of study, such as quantum mechanics, metaphysics, and Marxist sociological theory. It seems to an outsider as an intellectual’s playground and not so much a serious enterprise for making contributions to ordinary life.
If you share these thoughts, you would not be alone. Furthermore, you are not far from wrong. Higher education is designed to be a place set apart, withdrawn from the hurly-burly of commerce and war and governing. Students are pulled aside for a period of years in order to exempt them from all that, so they can do something else.
What to busy parents and employers looks suspiciously like leisure is precisely that. You need leisure to acquire the knowledge, skills, and abilities represented by a college degree. Just ask working adults trying to go back now to finish, who just have to shut the world aside to study and make the grade.
Let me give you an example. Ordinarily, you can communicate readily with your neighbors or customers or co-workers. So why is it once a student goes away to school, one of the first things they do is examine their vocabulary, looking at all the definitions and adding new jargon to the mix? Why do professors seem bent on complicating things?
The cute answer is that we do so because we can. We are not under any urgency to rush. We can take a giant step back to recognize the potential for confusion, as well as introduce new thoughts and ideas for which most folks have no words. The objective at the start is to complexify the mind, opening it up to possibilities and to intellectual puzzles that only the smartest people really have to solve.
That does not mean that university professors and graduates are superior humans. Believe me, some of the worst people I know are very, very smart. But the whole point is to expand the mind so it has the capacity to tackle the world’s biggest and most urgent problems. Just as a soldier climbs ropes the rest of us never have to climb is no reason to dismiss that kind of training. Not only might a soldier have to climb ropes in battle, but the stressful experience conditions him or her for physical exertion. That alone has value.
So, yes, we remove your brightest and best from productive activity and grant them leisure to ponder thoughts and ideas that may never have any practical use. Nobody said it was easy. And frankly, nobody should promise that it always pertains to the world as you know it. That is pretty much the whole point.
Nobody blames the Olympic hopeful training at altitude because the mountains are pretty.