What is Higher Education for?

On Mark Thoma’s blog, Economist’s View, there is an active debate about my post on the Demise of Higher Education.


The comments divided relatively predictable ways, according to whether the commentor were inclined toward Republican or Democratic policies, but relatively little energy was given to the question of the value of higher education. Most people can appreciate the beneficial technologies will that depend upon the scientific training and research that goes on in universities, although not everybody recognizes the debt that society owes to higher education in such developments.

Higher education can mean more than learning about science or classical literature. My own first learning experience in higher education had little to do with a classroom. I found myself in contact with a much wider variety of people that I had ever previously encountered. That in itself broadened my perspective on life. Classes in history, as well as classical music and literature, helped to give me a sense of the life and culture of other parts of the world. My greatest benefit from higher education was a curiosity about the world that I had lacked before.
Let me turn for a moment to an observation about my field, economics. Many of the economists who other economists recognize for making the greatest contributions to their field are people who benefited from exposure to different fields. The winner of the not-really Nobel Prize, Kenneth Arrow, was trained as a meteorologist during the Second World War. Similarly, Nobelist Paul Samuelson worked with mathematicians, engineers, and physicists developing radar during the war. Phil Mirowski’s Machine Dreams is filled with such examples. Of course, scientists have gotten inspiration from similar experiences.

In short, education in general, on is not something that can be easily measured in objective terms. Ideas, which initially seemed kooky, often later turn out to be crucial for future development.

The me finish by saying that my complaints about are not the product of some disgruntled academic, upset over low pay, mistreatment, or any other personal problems. I enjoy what I do. In fact, if I were willing to retire, I could teach half-time for a few years while collecting my pension. If I did, so my income would increase but I can only do so for five years. Consequently, I pay to keep teaching. I have good relationships with my chairman, my dean, and president of the University.

My anger is directed toward the forces that are working to destroy a world, which I love.

8 comments so far

  1. […] More: What is Higher Education for? « unsettling economics Posted in Higher Education Tags: a-much-wider, classical-literature-, contact-with, education, […]

  2. jpersonna on

    I didn’t comment. I generally liked your piece, but I did worry that Roger Freeman’s caution might have been smarter than it seemed. It isn’t just that he predicted wide education, it was that he predicted they’d be unemployed. That was prescient, and it is part of the box we find ourselves in. America has more low wage workers than other OECD countries. A quarter of our “shopgirls” have college degrees. That wasn’t supposed to happen. The degree was supposed to be a way out of the shop. It’s nice that the educated shop girl might have a deeper intellectual life (or not), but I don’t think we should take too much comfort in that. She has debts, too.

  3. Raghuraman R on

    I hope you read my ‘The limits of schooling’ article in IEEE Potentials. Education should be a personal desire and schooling is a ‘means’ to get education. These days, schooling is used only to get ‘promotion’al aspects in career and not really for enlightenment 😦

  4. […] Perelman responds to recent comments: What is Higher Education for?, Unsettling Economics: On Mark Thoma’s blog, Economist’s View, there is an active debate about my post on the Demise […]

  5. jakporch on

    you are great blog writer. i am fan of you . i follow every blog of you. you writes a correct article.
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  6. […] What is Higher Education for? « unsettling economics […]

  7. mark hansen on

    i have heard of studies that show that on the job training is the best way to learn how to do a job.
    this being the case formal education would seem to be better used as a way to increase one’s fund of knowledge and perhaps add to the total fund of human knowleadge. rather than as a way to a good paying job or career.

  8. Mark on

    Nice blog. Were you surprised at Heinberg’s comment that a university education was not for everyone?

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