The Canadian Press article Field of study key to degree value: study on Aug. 27 demonstrates one of the major factors underlying the current attack on higher education in Canada. If the reader pays attention to the evaluative language of the article, almost every single judgment concerning higher education is based on economics.
The following examples are illustrative but not exhaustive. CIBC World Markets funded the study cited in the article. An economist co-authored the study. The primary assumption of the article is that education should “lead to good jobs.” The phrase “return on investment” increasingly appears in discussions of post-secondary education, and it is primarily meant in economic terms. The article includes other economic phrases like an “excess supply” of graduates, “labour market outcomes,” “bang for their educational buck,” economically “underperforming” degree holders and “income prospects.”
The key term is, perhaps, value. It is maybe too obvious to point out that most things are valued primarily in economic terms or more generally in utilitarian ends. The humanities are all well and good, people say, but “what are you going to do with it?” is the question. How will you pay the mortgage? What will you do for a living?
While practical questions are valid and necessary, they are not the only ways to consider the value of something. A mechanical or chemical engineer can pursue a lucrative career in weapons manufacturing, but the ethical value of such a direction is highly questionable. We might look at the return on investment of poor people or disabled people and find them unstable investments. Even children are terrible sinkholes when it comes to money, contrary to what the Fraser Institute has recently published about the low cost of raising a child.
This is really nothing new. Jonathan Swift made similar arguments 300 years ago about putting unwanted babies to practical use: cannibalize them for food. Then, as now, as Swift himself points out, the arguments against economics generally fall on deaf ears. I will point out the irony of the fact that the Alberta premier is going deaf in her right ear. Economics appears to be a trump card to all other systems of value, and the brilliance of Swift’s argument in 1729 was that he pushed the economic logic to its extreme, forcing his readers to question the ethical value of their economic decisions to cannibalize children.
Education is not simply about economics. It is about exploration, curiosity, discovery, creativity, among other things, whether or not they have economic outcomes. Education is also about thinking, especially thinking about alternatives. When the primary motivation of education is fear of economic instability or student debt, the direction of study becomes debt avoidance. This is a crippling hazard to education, and it narrows any student’s potential to learn what he or she wants to pursue. Economic fear has replaced intellectual curiosity.
What are the alternatives, you may ask? For example, human diversities in race, religion, culture and history are easy places to start. Not to see the potential values in understanding or learning from such areas is part of the problem facing higher education.