College Doesn’t Make You A Better Person
Dear academics: If you truly want tolerance, stop fetishizing ‘education.’
Update: I received this essay back with the letter C on its cover, and one sole line of feedback: “This has nothing to do with the question.”
I Refuse To Write Another Essay Fetishizing ‘Education’
Recently I was instructed (surprise!) to write an essay on the purpose of education.
I have been asked to answer this question in entry-level courses more times than I can count.
I have grown bored with waxing poetically on the glory of knowledge, so this time, I took a different approach.
The result was the following.
Please answer the following questions.
What is the purpose of education? What is its value?
If education had a product, what would it be?
Dear Dr. — — — — — ,
I am grateful for the opportunity to take this class. My journey through education has been storied and long, but more rewarding than anything else in my life. I was pleased to receive your question, although I will admit that at first it elicited a cynical response.
The millennial relationship with education is as complex and stratifying as the issues of modern capitalism itself. For the generations preceding us, education was promoted as inherently beneficial- it was the great equalizer, the signature of innovation, the key to self-actualization. Now, with the dawn of the internet and our disillusionment with consumer culture, reverence for the institute of education itself has dulled.
Millennials have found that education does not equal economic mobility, and the works of white patriarchs long dead do little to further our own personal enlightenment beyond operating as an exercise in patience.
We graduate high school with souls long dead; we fill in bubbles on standardized tests hoping that the etch of our Number 2 pencil will inscribe prosperity but we know deep down that that is the lot of the privileged few, and maybe if we were men, maybe if we were white, maybe if we were middle-class it could have been us one day but we know in this lifetime it will never be, so at the first opportunity we stop taking tests and look for the chance to find self-actualization or even latent meaning in anything at all.
For those of us who do find ourselves still sitting in classrooms come the age of nineteen- those of us who are the lucky, the often unwilling, the privileged few- we are met with the opposite of the undergraduate apathy we were taught to endure. We find that learning cannot survive without passion, that evolution cannot exist without chaos, and that self-betterment cannot occur without humility. In fact, if we wish to learn virtually anything at all, we cannot do so without a fundamental level of self-betterment which pervades even our deepest unconscious.
If we continue to learn, we realize that this means that our most precious beliefs about the nature of reality itself will be questioned, and everything we know and love and held on to for dear life will be held at gunpoint by the throat by contraposing ideology which threatens our beliefs about existence itself.
We will realize that the world as we knew it was incomplete, we will the finitude of our own minds, we will realize the complexity and wonder of a rich and multifaceted world that is both more beautiful and more horrifying than we ever knew or could have dreamed- and we will run in fear, or we will love it. It is a visceral, instinctual reaction, one which equivocates to either shock or awe, and one which likely embodies both. It is a reaction all beings share when faced with something utterly new- the defamiliarizing threat and thrill of the sublime. It is both inexplicably gratifying and deeply uncomfortable to become aware of your own beauty, of the utter, tantalizing, inexplicable divinity of every second of your life- your paralysis in the face of God is a synthesis of both the person you once were, which society has crafted you to believe you are, and the personhood you have always had and share with the universe itself, a personhood which is deeper and richer than all knowledge or any issue which corrupts our class or economics or cripples the politics of our time.
It is knowledge itself which has unlocked this for us, and if we are to be good stewards we know better than to fetishize that knowledge and the supremacy of an asset historically controlled by the elite. If we truly understand knowledge- a concept itself often used as a tool of oppression- we understand that it is a tool of power, and the more we know of this world, the more we know only of ourselves and our own failure to adequately perceive or draw the measure of anything. The greater plurality of experiences we internalize, the more we realize how much our experience is but one dimension in a fractalacious vortex we are not even aware of yet perpetually inhabit, and the more we realize our own cosmic mandate to both respect the experiences of others and to powerfully wield the tremendous responsibility of how we utilize this incarnation we pioneer ourselves.
I want to say that education teaches us social responsibility and self-improvement, but if I’m honest with you, sir, that is entirely untrue. I am an upper-middle-class white girl who has always gotten A’s and been told that I was brilliant, inspiring, and uniquely smart, and upon encountering the world I realized that none of those things were true any more than I could decipher compared to the person left of my proximity. Rather, instead I saw that I am sheltered, privileged, and naive. I have always felt confident in the academic world, and I have always excelled- but that is not because I am smart, that is because I am lucky.
For most of my friends, neighbors, brothers, and sisters, their lives in the classroom have been hard, and the world has been rough and unforgiving. When I first realized my aptitude for academics, I believed I was great. Now that I am in the throes of what education actually entails, I realize the greatness of the world, the greatness of others, and the terrifying greatness of which I am capable and which I hope I one day can be. When I first began my education, I believed it was about self-improvement; now I believe it is about social responsibility. To realize that you are part of a greater whole imparts an awareness and a mandate which no dream, no despair, and no amount of student debt could ever take away.
There are days when I would gladly hit “Return” and please refund my debt to Sallie Mae to stop those impossible bills from coming, but it is not for the fact that I believe I’ve been cheated.
I, like, most millennials, am disillusioned with the net return of academia, but I have not been cheated by education.
I have been cheated by a corrupt system, and it is education that has taught me the difference. And it is my education with which I plan to dismantle it from its very core.
If I could say education had a product, I would like to say it is abundance.
But if education had a product, it would be an empty box.
And if successful education had a product, it would be the match ignited which set that box on fire and set the mind upon which every essay on “knowledge” ever written in history was cast into the fire to burn.
Note: The Morality of Merit
Of course college doesn’t make you a better person. And education does not, by nature, improve your moral development at all. Most of us who’ve gone to college probably have, at one point, reflected, that college made us better people- or that going to college was the right thing to do. These are moral implications. Once we’ve finished college, society views us as a certain kind of person- a person with certain assumed moral qualities, who is given moral privileges, social forgiveness, huge amounts of social aid, and, most of all, he is given, at all times, the benefit of the doubt.
I used the pronoun he in that last sentence because it is, at least historically, always a he-occupier, who inherits this situation - which he has, presumably, “earned” through his penitence of college. He is now of a different class, the class to which he “belongs.” He is no longer a working-class man. He can now check “college education” on that census box. He is now, suddenly, a moral and valuable person.
But the he that picks up your garbage? The man that’s your cashier struggling to get by, or the man welding steel at the shipyard for $11 an hour? They should have just tried harder. Implicitly, subconsciously, we are crueler in our assessments of these people, less likely to empathize with their pain, and more likely to justify their hardships or flaws with the proclamation that they should have worked harder, done something differently, tried more, “bettered” themselves, or, in other words, been more like us. We are harder on the uneducated, but we view them as “needy,” “incapable,” or “entitled.”
Most hard-hitting, truly intellectually provocative thinkers I have read argue, of course, for intersectional advocacy and social equality, but each of them still shrouds, indiscriminately, some qualitatively-ranked mythos of ‘learning,’ (or, implicitly, education) as some kind of holy grail to cultural change. (But education is really, more than anything, the chronicler of cultural change and the documentarian of human developments- it is, by nature, in the business of analyzing, segmenting, and adjuticating things- hardly, at all, in the business of creating them to propel into the public, as if university campuses were somehow the laboratories of God. Anyone who’s spent time in academia and tried to do a single ‘new’ thing will understand how unlikely it is that change could possibly, in any way, be academia’s primary function.) As if the answers, the power, the secrets to being human are somehow locked within and uncovered by four years of math, Marx, and Freud? (Could literally anything be less likely?!)
In fact, the argument that college makes you a better person is often supported, and not wrongly so, by the premise that college exposes you to different kinds of ideas. This would, in all actuality, make you a wiser, more understanding, more conscious person. I’ve written this remark many times myself, and always felt wise for doing so- college made me a better person because it exposed me to different kinds of ideas.
But wait…. does it though? Are you truly enlightened through your exclusively white, exclusively male, exclusively Western syllabus of mental exploration? Are you truly becoming more tolerant of ideas? Are you truly learning to understand the world? Or are you just, actually, secluding yourself even further into a form of academic self-fixation that deifies patriarchal, xenophobic ideologies, while dismissing all the rest of emerging ideology across cultures, in some dystopian highbrow/lowbrow, classroom/street, academic/avant-garde paradigm, while stripping the world of its art and ideas, then dressing them up and calling them “education” once we’ve touched them, all the while deifying our own work and condemning as profane the genuine lifestyle of our work’s true creators? What does it mean, to say that education is inherently good, or even just inherently better? What does this imply about the people of the world? Have some people failed? Are they worse people? Are they unfortunate, to not be able to sip from this immaculate cup that is the goblet of academia (aka knowledge and moral purity)? There is the sacred and the profane, apparently, and no matter how secularist the discipline, you will hear them talk about education this way.
This is one very old, very boring story that has been told too many times.
‘Knowledge’ is not inherently good. ‘Learning’ is not a moral qualification. An education is not something everyone ‘needs.’ If you truly want to advocate tolerance, stop fetishizing “education.”
Your holy grail of intellect has nothing to do with morality. College is the lot of a few, who belong to certain strata of culture, and ‘we,’ rather than pressing forth in our self-development, are far more likely to be isolated within the confines of a Western-dominated, masculinity-oriented, American myth of “earning” and “moral worth” as moral prescriptivism applied only to those unlike us- we aren’t doing these things because we’re moral, enlightened people. We’re doing these things because we are embedded within longstanding structures of institutional power, and education is just one of these functions- and it is a function with tremendous social power to oppress or to legitimize, to open or to close, to create or to calcify, to inscribe or to erase, to pardon or to punish- to dictate, or to free.
The one we choose to do, we ought to choose carefully.