What good is a degree?

Another article published, suggesting that since recent graduates are earning less than their predecessors, and many are employed in jobs that do not require graduate skills, that the value of a degree is somehow called into question. This makes me sad.

I have always found it hard to sympathise with the purely instrumental argument around education – at whatever stage. Do we think we are purely educating our future generations for the benefit of as yet unknown future employers? I would hate to think that – that the entire purpose of years spent studying in the sciences, social sciences and humanities was simply so that someone could write a better memo, chair a better meeting, or turn in a better argued and referenced marketing plan. What a hollow world results from that conclusion.

Of course some degrees are professional and vocational and comprise the body of knowledge required to be a doctor, teacher or engineer, among many other professions. This we know.

But education is vastly more than that. G K Chesterton memorably described it as, “simply the soul of a society passed from one generation to the next.”

If we take such an instrumental view, what then is our society’s soul? It would look to me like the misshapen, pitiful remnant of Voldemort left on the platform of the imaginary King’s Cross station at the end of the Harry Potter stories, for which Dumbledore sorrowfully says nothing more can be done. A soul without wonder, without curiosity and without love – in this case the love of knowledge and learning that is our true human heritage and birthright.

If anything distinguishes us as human beings it is not our better mating or survival strategies compared to other species. It is that, as far as we currently know, we are alone in the animal kingdom in our quest to know and understand our universe – both outer and inner – and pass that knowledge and understanding on. It is a fundamental human heritage, and to my mind a fundamental human right that we should all have the opportunity to access that treasure of learning and questioning.

Yes, we need physical food and shelter and basic security. But we also need mental food, safe places for wherever inquiry may lead, and the opportunity to be amazed, awed and moved by art, by science and by the intricacy and contradictoriness of our own natures as social beings.

That is the true value of a degree. As a society we should be prepared to invest in all levels of education, not for any sense of immediate financial return, but for the return to our society’s soul – however you may care to define it. And it should be open to all and any who can benefit from it.


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