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The Value of Higher Education: Learning or Ticket-Punching?

According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, four of the 10 most popular majors among American college students are business-related.

It’s easy to understand why: Even in the best of times, employers aren’t exactly tripping over themselves to hire liberal arts majors. And I don’t need to remind you that these are not the best of times.

But as a friend of mine, Chuck Stetson, who has real world experience in the business world, will tell you, the kind of knowledge you get in a true liberal arts education is what is often needed the most.

In a recent column in the Yale Daily News, Stetson lamented that the study of Western civilization was not a part of his Yale education or that of his daughter’s 40 years later. Instead his knowledge of Western civilization is mostly self-taught.

The loss is more than a personal one. According to Stetson, a grounding in the “core concepts” of Western civilization is “essential” in his venture capital business. He described a study he did on behalf of another venture capitalist, Tommy Davis. The CEOs of the most successful companies that Davis had backed “attributed their success to traditional, uniquely Western values.”

The connection is so important that Stetson’s firm rejects applicants who lack this grounding.

Stetson’s piece was directly occasioned by the announcement that Yale’s president, Richard Levin, will be retiring at the end of this academic year. While Levin accomplished a great deal for the university, my alma mater is still lagging when it comes to “teaching Yalies to be good citizens and contribute to America’s success.”

It isn’t only Yale. Across the country, fewer and fewer students are being taught the kind of things Stetson wrote about. The reflexive response is to blame the state of affairs on “political correctness” or left-wing faculty.

While there is some truth to this, the biggest reason lies in our attitudes towards higher education. Simply put, the vast majority of Americans view college in economic and instrumental terms. We go to college and want our children to do the same because it’s a necessary part of “getting ahead.”

Case in point: a recent Yahoo article listed the “7 Benefits of Getting a College Degree.” The list included the usual suspects: “higher earning potential,” “job stability” and “job satisfaction.” It also included things like “lower blood pressure and stress” and “healthier lifestyle choices.”

What it made no mention of was actually learning anything worthwhile, much less an education that made one a better citizen.

Again, Yahoo, like Yale, is far from unique in this respect. Virtually every argument for going to college is made along these same lines. Even attendance at prestigious institutions, and the colossal debt that many students incur to do so, is justified in financial terms such as the contacts you make.

The idea that universities should help students “lay hold of truth,” as Stetson puts it, makes little sense in a world in which a college degree is merely a ticket to be punched on the way to doing more important things.

Thus, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that most college students, including those at Yale, are ignorant about Western civilization and how it made their way of life possible.

Because of this ignorance, all of our efforts at “getting ahead” won’t get us very far.

Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.

Publication date: October 10, 2012

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