We rarely have time to stop and think seriously about some new fashionable sentences, words, acronyms (a terrible fashion) and ideas. A good example is the lame discussion around the “higher education bubble”. It is lame because it speaks only about money when the real challenge is more complex and the impact is relevant for a long-term perspective. The plot of this story is very simple: Peter Thiel – the co-founder of PayPal company and an early investor in Facebook – created the Thiel Foundation to fund 20 people under the age of 20 with a fellowship of $100,000 to drop out of school and become successful entrepreneurs and world-changing visionaries. Since this challenge was thrown in the arena, media and respected scholars followed the argument of a rich man with some ideas and reduced the entire discussion to the financial aspects (you can listen NPR’s “Is A College Education Worth The Debt?”). A new fashion was created and hundreds of applicants joined the cue to leave school for a future with even more money than promised by universities; just imagine a “X-country Got Talent” cue and it may not be very far from reality.
The most recent study on this topic – added to the Library section where prestigious institutions vastly document with clear statistics why education is a good investment – was released by Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (The College Payoff. Education, Occupations, Lifetime Earnings). As Thiel was speaking about education in United States, this comprehensive study is even more relevant as it covers the situation for this country. The other advantage of this study is that is presenting findings in “dollar totals over a career, which is defined as being a full-time, full-year worker from 25 to 64 years old”. In other words: investing in your education will bring you more money? The first conclusion is:
“Over a lifetime, individuals with a Bachelor’s degree make 84% more than those with only a high school diploma.”
The study not only confirms that the value of college degrees is increasing, but reveals that more education will give you more money:
“Even within the same occupation, more education gets workers more money. Truck drivers with less than high school make $1.3 million over a lifetime, compared to $1.5 million for truck drivers with a high school diploma. Elementary and middle school teachers with a Bachelor’s degree make $1.8 million over a lifetime, compared with $2.2 million for those with a Master’s degree.”
These findings are great, but not news. OECD publishes almost every year collection of statistical data and analysis that proves why education is a very good investment for a person and for societies. In “Understanding the Social Outcomes of Learning” published by OECD in 2008 you read about money and chapters on other benefits, such as “Health Outcomes of Learning”. The value of education is now so obvious and so well documented that the simple question seems to deserve very little attention and can be solved with a simple invitation to read numerous national and international studies based on strong data and facts. This did not happend in this case.
The natural question is why questioning the value of education gained so much traction in academia and mass media? Why respected academics spent so much effort and time to justify something so easy to defend and so visible? The seduction of anti-intellectualism and hostility towards educated people is a simplistic answer that does not cover the interest of academia to take one of the polarized sides. It may be the fact that the entire discussion was around money and the source of the debate is a rich man. The rationale is based on the logic that Thiel has a special talent for making money and he knows well what is a good investment. Therefore, here is an important source of knowledge: the person with money speaks about investing in education – we better listen and align to give good answers.
This is the first real source of a possible bubble in education: the values once at the core of our civilization are now overwhelmed by the noise of money. The mogul replaced the erudite not only on the public arena, but also in campus and in thinking. The entrepreneur is taking the place of the social philosopher, the expert and the scholar in a scene where Academia is now a replica of business centers. Mr. Thiel now takes the place once occupied by Plato and he cannot be blamed. He is free to take whatever decision he wants as any of us, but it is an interesting sign to see respected scholars giving him so much credit for a “revolutionary idea” and placing the ‘expert in investments” in this surprising role. In the reality of this context paideia, arete or kalokagathia may be pillars of the Western civilization (and education), but stay now only as ridiculous spaces to waste time and not make money.
This situation is also speaking about a time when anyone is an expert in education and no basic knowledge about history of education, psychology, educational policies, or teaching and learning is required to have definitive opinions and even take decisions with great impact. As long as you went through school it is natural to claim that you know what a teacher should do, how a school should be organized and what students need. There is rarely any other area of our lives now with so many experts. In this reality if a rich man knows what is required to have visionary people of the future than we have to pay attention: the expert in making money just spoke and his bank account is the ultimate argument of relevance. This is a real threat for education.
MIT President Susan Hockfield recently said that higher education is now at crossroads:
“[It is] a very complicated time – one that tests the limits of human ingenuity and understanding. A time when the world has never depended more on science and technology that we study and invent at MIT, but seems, on the whole, dangerously unable to understand that science and technology. Yet, ironically, a time when many question the value of higher education and the utility of government-sponsored research”.
We can easily translate this as the time when the world is dangerously unable to understand the value of education. Just forget for a moment about the politicians’ rhetoric and wolves in sheep’s clothing talking about the “importance of education” and see how the aims of education today speak about our current values or how teachers are usually represented and respected in most Western countries. MIT President also noted in April 2011:
“What is missing in United States is a deficit of ambition […] I think, as a nation, we hardly celebrate the achievements that one can attain if one has a college education. We are a nation that happily celebrates athletes and entertainers – and I think that’s great… But we do not have heroes that come out from a different kind of life.”
The truth is that the profound distrust in intellect and education, the public ridicule of cultivated and profound thinking (nerds have that) as opposed to positive attributes associated for public sympathy with various kinds of entertainers is maybe the most influential export United States had for decades; this changed the world and the university as well. To think that Mrs. Susan Hockfield pinpoints a reality valid only for United States is just a sweet delusional dream – the Americanization of education is in this sense almost complete for the world.
The real bubble in education is not about money and investments, but close to challenges such as “what students learn?”, “how grades reflect what students learn?”, “what is happening with studying in universities?” and “how lifelong learning is lived by new graduates?”.
These topics related to the real “bubble” in education require a separate blog entry (or a chapter in a book)…
Note: Thanks to all who spend time to read this personal space of thinking about what is my source of hope and passion: education. I am truly grateful for your comments and I kindly ask you to post them here – this place is open for comments and no registration is required (I hope I got this right is settings). Of course, if you want to send your comments as before please do not hesitate – but some are so much better than the original material that it will be great to post them at the source.