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.