Why should Americans go into debt to get a college education? Is a college degree so valuable that it makes sense to borrow money to get one--even when it might take a person a quarter of a century to repay the debt?
The higher education industry argues ad nauseam that workers with college degrees make more money than people who have no degrees--about a million dollars on average over their working lifetimes. But of course, this bald statement does not explain why going to college has gotten so expensive or why a college degree is useful beyond its power to raise lifetime income.
John Kenneth Galbraith: Education and The Good Society
About 20 years ago, John Kenneth Galbraith wrote a book titled The Good Society. Galbraith defined the good society as a society in which "all of its citizens . . . have personal liberty, basic well-being, racial and ethnic equality,[and] the opportunity for a rewarding life" (p. 4).
Galbraith argued that the achievement and sustenance of a good society depends on education. He devoted a chapter of his book to education, which, Galbraith wrote, was valuable in three senses.
A. Economic value of education
First, Galbraith acknowledged that education has economic value not only for the individual but for society as a whole. At the personal level, education enables individuals to raise their economic status.
To make this point, Galbraith pointed to the upward mobility of European migrants during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Most of these immigrants arrived in the United States in utter poverty; yet by the second or third generation, their descendants had scrambled into the middle class.
This remarkable achievement was made possible, Galbraith argued, by education. "For upward escape, either by the individual or by his or her children, education is the decisive agent," Galbraith wrote.
But education is also critical to society as a whole, Galbraith continued, because it contributes to societal stability. "For one thing,' Galbraith wrote, "education has a vital bearing on social peace and tranquility; it is education that provides the hope and the reality of escape from the lower, less-favored social and economic strata to those above."
B. Intrinsic value of education
Galbraith then went on to articulate the intangible rewards of education:
Education is, most of all, for the enlargement and the enjoyment of life. It is education that opens the window for the individual on the pleasures of language, literature, art, music, the diversities and idiosyncrasies of the world scene. The well-educated over the years and centuries have never doubted their superior reward; it is greater educational opportunity that makes general and widespread this reward.In this passage, Galbraith summarized perhaps what academicians across the country have been saying for years--that higher education, and liberal arts education in particular, enhances the quality of our lives.
C. Education is an indispensable component of a modern and complex democratic society
Finally, Galbraith argued persuasively that education is necessary to maintain a modern and complex democratic society. As societies advance economically and accept more and more responsibility for social welfare, Galbraith wrote, the problems of government become more complex and diverse.
There must then be either a knowledgeable electorate intellectually abreast of these issues and decisions or a more or less total delegation of them to the state and its bureaucracy. Or there must be surrender to the voices of ignorance and error. These, in turn, are destructive of the social and political structure itself.Further, Galbraith wrote, education not only makes democracy possible, it also makes it necessary. Democracy "is the natural consequence of education and economic development," he argued, because there is no other practical design for governing people, who because of their educational attainments, expect to be heard and cannot be kept in silent subjugation."
American higher education today is eroding The Good Society
I think almost everyone would agree with Galbraith that education has both economic and intrinsically life-enriching benefits. But let's look at the state of higher education today--20 years after Galbraith wrote The Good Society.
First, the federal government allows for-profit colleges and schools to prey on unsophisticated young Americans, particularly those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged. Millions have taken out student loans to pay for educational experiences that are overpriced and often do not lead to good jobs. Consequently, students who attended for-profit schools have a five-year default rate of 47 percent. Meanwhile, many of the schools themselves have been charged with fraud.
Even reputable private liberal arts colleges are charging more for a liberal arts degree than the degree is worth in economic terms. It is simply indefensible for someone to pay $150,000 to $200,000 to get a four-year degree in history, English, sociology or philosophy. People who borrow to attend these expensive institutions are often unable to pay off their loans over 10 years and are forced into income-driven repayment plans that obligate them to make loan payments for 20 and even 25 years. For these people, higher education was not a liberating experience; rather it became the instrument by which they became economically enslaved.
Perhaps more importantly, contemporary higher education has morphed into a distorted version of its former character. Today, students shout down speakers who espouse disfavored points of view on political or social issues. Our civilization's heritage of literature, history and philosophy are disparaged and dismissed as irrelevant and even racist.
Indeed, students now think they are more qualified to decide what is important to study than their professors. At the University of Pennsylvania, for example, students took down an image of Shakespeare and replaced it with the photo of Audre Lorde an obscure black female writer.
Will Lorde's photo remain in a place of honor indefinitely? Not likely. The incoming freshman class may decide that another writer is more important than Shakespeare or Lorde.
And if the freshman class chooses to discard Lorde's photo for another writer--perhaps someone who has more "likes" on Facebook--who are the faculty to demure? After all, students at some colleges are paying about $5,000 a seat to attend an undergraduate class. Shouldn't they have the absolute right to dictate what it is they want to study?
Tragically, education and the good society have become uncoupled. In fact, in some sort of bizarre reversal, education may now be eroding the Good Society rather than nurturing it.
|John Kenneth Galbraith: some old white guy whose work you need not read|
John Kenneth Galbraith. The Good Society: The Humane Agenda. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
Olivia Sylvester. Students remove Shakespeare portrait in English dept., aiming for inclusivity. Daily Pennsylvanian, December 11, 2016.