By way of the Crunchy Con blog, I was reading Sharon Astyk’s blog entry on valuing education. She had recently come across the school books her great-grandfather used when he was a young man in Northern Maine. She reflects at length about the ways in which a formal education was valued in a time when children were needed to help with farms and teachers weren’t paid well at all. Among her observations are that while her great-grandfather left the farm to go to college, his ability to support himself as a teacher when he emerged was less assured than had he remained a farmer.
There has been a great deal of debate lately on the value of a liberal arts education. It is a conversation worth watching since the value of the arts is directly related to the value placed upon the Humanities. Astyk is pretty good at not overly romanticizing the education New Englanders received in the 1800s. The bodies of knowledge then and now were different as were the subjects pertinent to one’s daily life. Her main thesis is that education had as much value to the community eking out a living in Maine as it did the individual.
Except, that it didn’t get them nothing – the benefits were not remunerative, but communal. They were competent citizens. Quoting Virgil may have been of no actual use to a farmwife in rural Maine except this – that she knew she could, that she could teach Latin to her children were she to go west, far from schools, that she would have in her head forever the story of the founding of Rome, alongside Emerson on “Compensation,” “Barbara Freitchie” and the history of the rulers of England. We can quibble with what she knew – suggest that the history she learned might have better included different stories, that there are better poems. She would live her life in a community that had, if it had nothing else, a library, able to read fluently and enjoy when she had a few minutes alone. What we cannot argue with, I think is the value that communities found in education in these times was that education had value for its own sake, in creating educated citizens…
Despite the fact that that education cost people something, they went on providing it, because it was right, because farmwives who read poetry and fishermen who knew algebra made farmwives who wrote letters to the editor and gathered for literary gatherings and community theatricals, and fishermen who recited poetry to themselves as they drew in their lines, recited them to their children at bedtime, and stood for town council at the end of the day. We should not over-romanticize the role of education in ordinary, work-filled daily lives. Nor, however, should we understate how remarkable it was.
These days, it is what you are paying for your education and what it will yield you that matters more than the education itself.
As the cost of education continues to outstrip the economic value of education, it becomes more and more imperative that we return to valuing education in proportion to its goods – these are vast. I, the product of a liberal education, give enormous credit to mine. But I had the good fortune to have a college education much like the one my great-grandfather had, one not expected to get me much…. My friends were told that they could minor in theater but had to major in computer science or economics or something that would get them a good job, because after, all, the parents were not paying 20,000 dollars a year to let them major in the humanities…
At the lower levels, the emphasis is still on the economic value of education – but we are assured at every step that free public education has no value – you *must* go on to community college, to college, to graduate school, often at stunning cost (and the not-stunning costs are rising, as states cut subsidies to education). You must do these things because a free education cannot get you a job – simply having a high school degree is nothing. And we are so caught up in the economic value of education – and in the necessity of training students for higher education or blue-collar slavery, that we’ve entirely forgotten the value of education outside the economy – of education as a way of making people.
The emphasis above is mine. Now as the arts community starts to look at the intrinsic value of the arts and move away from justifying its existence based on economic benefits, I wonder if it is too late. Will the valuing of education for its practical career applications to the detriment of Humanities studies and even education for its own sake end up ultimately contributing to the devaluing of art for its own sake?
It makes me think that if we are going to fight for the arts, (and I don’t think we are ready to cede the battle yet), we ought to consider explicitly championing the value of the humanities and education for its own sake while we are at it. These things provide context and meaning for what we do, after all.