I continue to hear the discussion about the value or lack thereof of a college education. The discussion always center around the cost, getting a job and what you get from a formal education. I place this mentality right there next to those who have millions of dollars, who say money does not matter. Those with a formal collegiate education, technical school and millionaires who say after the fact say it is not the end all can take the nonsense elsewhere. Try telling Africans who were enslaved 300-400 years ago education was not of value.
The Intrinsic Value of Liberal Education
In my last post, I made the case that a liberal arts degree remains a great investment, in the most practical of terms: skills development, career opportunity, and lifetime earnings. The question I would like to pose today is this: Does pursuing a liberal education also have intrinsic worth? Would it be worth choosing for its own sake, aside from all of its considerable practical value? The candidates for human endeavors worth pursuing for their own sake, even if nothing further came of them, are surprisingly few. They include endeavors or experiences like: loving another person; engaging in worship for those who practice a faith; having an aesthetically moving experience of art or music or nature; practicing benevolence, kindness, generosity, or compassion. To this list I would add the endeavor of becoming liberally educated. The very project of seeking understanding, of considering deeply and rigorously what is currently known in one’s own quest for understanding, and to advance the depth and completeness of human understanding overall, are among the most intrinsically worthy or valuable endeavors in the human scope. A liberal education is an expansion of consciousness: with every book read, every natural or social system grasped, every theory put to the test and employed, we become persons with greater scope and agency. Every book or poem, film or equation, image or idea that we struggle to grasp expands and complicates our souls and enlarges our capacities to make meaning of the world and effect change. Pursuing in earnest the personal and intellectual capacities that we say graduates should possess – independent thinking, integrative and collaborative inquiry, effective communication, global engagement and respect for diversity, civic and social responsibility, – amounts to a sort of soul craft. In the very process of liberal inquiry in the arts and sciences, one creates an identity, not just with greater breadth and depth of understanding, but also with greater capacity for action, greater freedom and independence, not only to pursue one’s own ends, but to influence positively the well-being of the world. During their time on campus, no matter what their majors, students pursuing a liberal education are certain at some point, perhaps at many points, to change their minds. Reflect on that phrase: “I changed my mind.” What a profound thing it is to change one’s mind. And that is exactly why the living and learning community of a liberal arts college exists. For many, perhaps most, of our students, these changes are hard won. They are the product of toil and struggle, of progress punctuated by failure and anxiety. Because in changing their minds, in making up their minds, they are engaged in the process of becoming; they are creating an identity out of the raw materials of their studies and experiences. And that, I submit, is a profoundly valuable and worthy human endeavor. It is also an enormous privilege, which carries with it the responsibility to deeply and seriously embrace the opportunity and then put it to work in the world to advance the opportunities of others. This whole package – of pursuing and advancing understanding, of making up one’s mind, of becoming oneself and equipping oneself to contribute to the well-being of the world – this is what we call liberal education. And, yes, it has inestimable value.
[This essay is adapted from Grant Cornwell’s 2014 Convocation Address at the college of Wooster, “Liberal Education and the Question of Value.”]
In a couple months I will be sending my son off to college and in two years I will be sending my daughter off into the college world. My parents and my in-laws did not have the opportunity to pursue higher education. However, my wife and I have both received the benefits of higher learning.
Reading, writing and arithmetic seems so simple to do and it is. One of the greatest things my parents did out of the many great things they did was to have books, magazines, newspapers and a bible in the house. A long time ago before the internet! There used to be door to door Encyclopedia sales and my parents bought a set and an interactive board called the Cyclo teacher. We had Jet, Ebony, and Black Enterprises in the house. I was into comic books at a young age, particularly Marvel Comics because they had African-American Super-heroes. I was avid reader of Sports Illustrated, Motor Trend, Road and Track and as I got older and into weightlifting I was reading Muscle Mag and Muscle and Fitness. My love of books comes from father, and once I started reading non-fiction books outside of my formal education it is the foundation of my conscience and intellect. I can point to four books that totally changed how I approached life and the world around me. These are the books, “The Souls of Black Folks, written by W.E.B. DuBois, The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors, written by Dr. Frances Cress Wesling, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written by Alex Haley, and The Art of War, written by Sun Tzu. I wish my mother could have found her way to higher learning, because when it comes to math, finance and business acumen it was mother who managed my parent’s finances and investments. It is my mother who had the economic insight to recognize the timing of the real estate market. I had a bank account when I was twelve years old and this was the planning and genius of my mother. The only way to master reading, writing and arithmetic is to go to school and take education serious. In my parents’ house education came before sports and on time I got a D grade on an English paper in the seventh grade and I dad did not allow me to play baseball for 1 week. I will tell you 1 week in the major leagues might not be much but in little league 1 week is 2 to 3 games in a 14 game season! I escaped that class with a C+ but there were some circumstances surrounding this class and teacher because this was during forced busing and this teacher did not interact with some of the students and I was one of them. However, one of the lessons I got from this and would be very valuable later while I was in college, was no matter how the teacher and professor perform their job as a student you ( I ) have to do whatever it takes in class and outside of class to learn the task at hand. Learning and studying has to become a habit and skill. Once you have these two mastered there is nothing in this world you cannot do. If it is written down with directions you can make, build or achieve whatever your heart desires. But, you have to put in the work. In time because of the steps you learn in school and study habits you create on your own, where there are no directions or instructions you will be intelligent and smart enough to make your own directions. Knowledge of history, self and truth is power. In America, one of the problems with the educational system is that it is not built for a child who has never read a book or calculated math. When I started pre-school my mom had my brother and me reading, writing and doing math before we started school. The discipline along with the preparation had us ready to learn. Throughout the 1st grade to the 12th grade did I and my brother stumble? The answer is yes, but we had enough of a respect of the power of education that we could rebound from a so-so grade or illness to get back on track and not miss a beat. We are now living in a day and age where there is no room for a lack of preparation, discipline, and due diligence.
Moreover, the lack of teaching at home has affected how kids could learn in school. By the way, I have B.A. in Economics from Morehouse, M.B.A. from South University, Six Sigma Green Belt from Emory University, ACE certified trainer. I have published over ten books on African-American social & cultural challenges, health and wellness, have four blogs and owned two businesses. I could not have done any of this without the power of school, education and knowledge.
Share and Enjoy