It's easy to be passive in our thoughts. We're bombarded with so many concepts and opinions everyday that we have learned to tune them out - smile and nod and ignore the message - or assimilate it subconsciously. I do it regularly.
But every once in a while, I recognize a trend: a series of unrelated sources all presenting me with the same questions to ponder. And that's when I take notice. That's when I think intentionally...

Thursday, 19 January 2012

The Cost of Education

A while ago I wouldn't have made any direct connection between education and the economy.  They seemed as unrelated as two fields of study could be.  That is, unless you were in school, majoring in economics; which I wasn't.  And there was a very good reason for that: economics bored me… terribly.  But these topics appear to be inextricably linked, in many ways.  As I began to take note of the ties, I began to realize how much this often-overlooked relationship promises to impact our future.  As I stepped back and surveyed the bigger picture, the question that kept surfacing in my mind was "What is our current model of education costing us?"
The immediate, answer to that question is obvious.  My generation's current expenditure on the mainstream educational model is huge.  There is little disagreement on that point.  I cannot recall any conversation with a peer, concerning their educational experience as a whole, without some exasperation over how much they are paying for it.  When I ask what they want to do after, the most common answer is, "I want to get my diploma, and then find a job to pay off my student loans – hopefully it will be in the same field that I studied, but whatever I can find will have to do until I can get into what I really want to do."
Fair enough, I suppose, although most stepped onto that path without knowing the stats on how it would likely pan out.  But what is that debt doing to their personal finances in the meantime?  Most are putting all of their time into maintaining their schedule: class, study, work, sleep… (or a liquid sleep substitute of caffeine or energy drinks)… and eating on the run.  And after all that, many of those who have graduated are working in a job they were, or could have been doing, before their debt load was added to the scene.
Frustrating, to say the least.  Long-term, though, I wonder how it will affect the national economy.  Considering the fact that the average Canadian household already owes more than they bring in, and today's students are graduating with a debt of $25,000, or more, it's not a solid start.  On top of that, we are beginning to see that a diploma does not guarantee a job that pays more than minimum wage.
So why go to university?  We go, because in these uncertain economic times, one needs an education to separate them from the pack.  Right?  Well, technically, it's true.  But unfortunately, our current system is not providing that education, and it certainly isn't separating anyone from the pack.  Today, those in 'the pack' all have degrees, and the overpriced diploma to prove it.  But just as our dollar has undergone inflation, so has education.  A degree is valued less and less.  Our culture is advancing at such an exponential rate that half of what a student learns in their first year of study is outdated by the time they have graduated.  Having proof that you once went to school is not enough.  It does not qualify you for a job market experiencing such drastic growing pains. 
The top jobs of 2010 did not exist in 2004.  And we have no idea what the top ten will be in another few years.  So the advice of previous generations, although well-meaning, springs from their experience of a culture that no longer exists.  Pursuing a stable career, with a good, reliable income falls short of what this ever-shifting culture demands. 
But the answer needs to come from the foundation.  The current model is flawed, in its basic concept.  Education should not be a conveyer belt or a factory, and it should not be fragmented into independent subjects that have no direct bearing on each other.  Without an understanding that each 'subject' is simply a different way to approach the holistic, multi-faceted world we inhabit, students will not be able to embrace, process or apply new information readily enough to keep up.  Without the courage to be creative and risk getting it wrong, students will not be equipped to find new answers to the problems they will encounter in their rapidly unfolding future.
Education is necessary; and the skills that are being taught today are necessary.  But on their own, they will not suffice.  As Thomas More once put it "One of the greatest problems of our time is that many are schooled but few are educated."  These terms are no longer synonymous.  The retention of facts and the ability to echo it back is a demonstration of mastering the systematized tests, not mastery of the concept or skill.  It means you're good at the game, not equipped for life in the real world.
Thomas More also said: "Education is not the piling on of learning, information, data, facts, skills, or abilities - that's training or instruction - but is rather making visible what is hidden as a seed."  It's not about data.  It's about active, conscious assimilation of new information and the ability to apply it in any situation that might require it. 
It is in this way that our schools are failing, and therein lies the true cost of our educational system.  As a culture we have separated the spectrum of natural human talent into two categories – 'worthwhile skills' and 'hobbies' – and we only teach the ones that 'count'.  However, in so doing we have lost something.  Our own limited understanding of the skills that matter has caused us to steer away from the very skills that separate us from our increasingly tech-supported world.  We may know what to think, but not how.   
Unfortunately, this limited focus has another symptom.  Because certain skills were not valued, certain career choices (usually the creative or hands-on ones) were also stifled.  My question:  What impact is this going to have on our future economy?  What happens when a generation pursues a degree or a dignified career, one that they've been told is stable and worthwhile, at the expense of what they love to do?  As I see it, you undermine the job market.  And that has the potential to cost us so much more than our student loans ever will. 
            Of my peers who have gone to college or university, too many have a piece of paper to say they did, and a job they hate because it has nothing to do with their field of interest.  Oddly enough, those who pursued their passion right out of highschool are further ahead in their career, because they have real field experience.  Many are also feeling more fulfilled, seeing purpose in their day to day lives.  I've experienced it myself.    
            The solution?  I'm not saying "don't go to school."  That would be intensely ironic coming from someone who has worked in the education system since graduating highschool.  It has its place.  But I am saying, "know why you are doing it!"  Don’t go simply because it's the expectation or the norm. 
            Ultimately, you need to pursue your passion, even if that means skipping formal, post-secondary education.  Gain experience in the field you feel called to impact.  And take responsibility for your own development.  Don't expect a professor or boss to do it for you, because if you can't jumpstart your own ambition, your education stops there.
            That could end up costing you more than you bargained for.      

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