As the debate over the worth of college education continues in China, similar doubts have arisen among Americans. A CNN Money report says an average American college student would have accumulated $25,000 in student loan in 2011. This will be no small burden when a student "grows up" and takes up a job.
In the United States, however, college tuition can vary widely from Ivy League universities that charge tens of thousands of dollars to state universities that cost much less to community colleges that are affordable. The debate on the "worth" of college, therefore, often centers on "elite colleges".
Yale graduate Pamela Haag wrote an article in The Chronicle Review on Oct 30, asking whether elite colleges are worth it. Haag says they are useful because of, among other things, the college "experience", alumni network and the sense of "rarity". Four years in college is a long, and perhaps the best, time for a person. If life is a journey instead of a race to reach a destination, then you should value the four years by all means.
The alumni network creates social hyperlinks to connect you to circles you wouldn't be able to access without going to a premier college. "Rarity", Haag argues, is not "superiority". It is something that can keep one "grounded". When someone doubts (or you have self-doubts about) your ability, a "Yale doctorate" can often help put you back on your feet. In other words, you don't have to keep proving yourself to others and yourself. An elite education helps you find some inner peace.
I find Haag's arguments rather different from the Chinese traditional perception of the usefulness of education. We learned in school that education gives us access to "thousands of bushels of millet" (food), "houses as good as gold" (shelter) and a "wife with jade-like skin" (good life partner).
But I realize that the college "experience", the alumni network and the sense of "rarity" are potential or perceived values waiting to be cashed. Not everyone can do so, though.
If your worth should be valued by how popular you can become, then managing a twitter account may be more valuable than attending Peking University, because the former may turn you into an Internet phenomenon. As an introvert and self-exiled hermit, I rarely see having a large social network as being beneficial.
I don't even think that we pay expensive college tuition to buy such intra-personal or interpersonal crutches to feel good about ourselves. These values may be simply vain and useless.
My take on the usefulness of college has more to do with the fundamentals of learning. Going to college gives one the chance to learn, engage other minds, diversify into other areas, explore new horizons and transform ourselves as a growing person.
When Haag's article was published, some readers tried to relate it to my recent book Knowledge Isn't Power. The idea I seek to communicate in the book is not the uselessness of knowledge. Rather, I want to say that education should move beyond the mere acquisition of knowledge to incorporate deliberate training in the skills to analyze, apply, synthesize and evaluate, as proposed in Bloom's Taxonomy of learning.
Education should make us structured and deliberate learners capable of formulating our own perspectives on issues, instead of following fads crowds blindly follow. Education should make us capable lifelong learners. If we can manage to do these, then college education is worth it. It should also help us to increase our social mobility, irrespective of whether that was our original purpose or not.
In China, education has become almost synonymous with competition. Well, we may need to rethink and poke around during our college days to see what additional doors we can open instead of rushing through the experience.
We live in a fast-moving society that shows no signs of slowing down. If college students don't learn to become lifelong learners, independent thinkers and persons of great inner strength, they will find themselves joining the long dark line of a desperate and characterless crowd whose sole purpose in life is to make a living.
If they attend college simply to learn bookish knowledge, without learning to apply it to understand or process the problems in the world, if they do not develop mental models, learning habits and emotional prowess to cope with future challenges life presents, then they simply didn't "get" it. Their so-called education is not worth it.
The author is a US-based instructional designer, literary translator and columnist writing on cross-cultural issues.