The Value of Education

By Sharon Coen

In a very provocative recent post on LinkedIn (The Strongest Careers Are Non-Linear), Penelope Trunk encourages young people to avoid the academic career and achieve success following these steps: skip college, focus on internship, start a company instead of writing a resume and refuse to present oneself in a linear way. She concludes by stating:

“The biggest barrier to accepting the radical new nature of the job hunt is the reverberations throughout the rest of life. If you don’t need school for work, and you don’t need school for learning, then all you need school for is so parents can go to work and not worry about taking care of their kids.”

This post elicited a wealth of comments and discussion on the site, to which I would like to add my take. Being a lecturer, and having devoted my life not only to research but also to education, I feel particularly strongly about this argument.  Here are the key points I would like to discuss:

1.      The strongest careers are non-linear

I would agree with this. Often, people reach success after having walked different paths in search of something that fulfils them, and not all paths go through education. An example is the famous and economically successful Lord Sugar, who prides himself for choosing to start a business when he was still a teenager rather than studying. My question is at this point: what are the chances of becoming a Lord Sugar? Out of a hundred teenagers who choose not to educate themselves, instead to start a business, how many will end up on welfare, how many will just get by and how many will become successful entrepreneurs?

2.      You don’t need school for work

Again, I agree with this. You certainly do not need school to get a job and earn some money. After all, some of the most lucrative jobs do not require education. Builders, movers, car mechanics, cleaners and sales people can make a lot of money without necessarily having a qualification. Even footballers, singers, actors and showpeople often reach success without having qualifications. It cannot be denied that this depends on what kind of jobs we are talking about. If someone aspires to be a lawyer, a physician, a surgeon , or a psychologist, they’d better make sure they gain the appropriate qualifications.

3.      You don’t need school for learning

Once again, I agree. I tell students that in my opinion, the best psychologists are people who live in constant contact with the outside world, such as taxi drivers and bartenders for example. One can learn in different ways and school is not the only way to learn.  It would be silly to state otherwise. But again, if it wasn’t for school, I would never have come across some of the most exciting ideas and concepts from Ancient Greek, Latin, Philosophy, History, Physics, Geography, and so on. I did not look for them. I wasn’t interested in these subjects before I HAD TO study them. School offered me the opportunity to come across knowledge which in all likelihood I would not have found otherwise.

4.      All you need school for is so that parents can go to work

Ok, I think this is a very provocative sentence and I doubt the author really believes it herself. But let’s take it seriously for the sake of argument. Schools are a babysitting programme to allow parents to go and earn money for the family. So what? I don’t see the problem here. If you add that babysitting schools also offer knowledge and a (mostly) safe environment where kids can socialise, I would say bless the schools! Especially if you consider how expensive babysitters are nowadays! What would you rather kids do whilst their parents are at work? Work in a factory or in a mine like they used to do in the nineteenth century? Or should parents give up their jobs to look after their kids and be welfare-dependent (where available) instead?

If education is not for money what is it for?

Many students come to me with this question: can this course get me a job? My answer to this question is no. Gaining an academic qualification is not a guarantee to a job, especially nowadays. Certainly, one cannot aspire to become a professional in certain areas without the appropriate qualifications, but there are many other ingredients needed in order to be successful in the job hunt, one of them being luck.

So why bother?

knowledgeBecause knowledge is a value in and for itself. Being aware of the incredible achievements that human beings have accomplished in their understanding of the world around them, being able to be critical and find one’s own voice in the midst of those of others, and being able to formulate an informed answer to the small and big questions in life are all skills that schooling and education help develop. Education is not about finding a job.  It is about fostering an informed citizenship where people are able to look at the big picture and play an active role in shaping the future of the society they live in. Or, at least, this is what I think it should be.

To quote Thomas Hobbes:

Scientia potentia est, sed parva; quia scientia egregia rara est, nec proinde apparens nisi paucissimis, et in paucis rebus. Scientiae enim ea natura est, ut esse intelligi non possit, nisi ab illis qui sunt scientia praediti.

Knowledge is power, but a limited power; because proper knowledge is rare, and not easily detectable if not in very few people and in a very limited amount of issues. Indeed, knowledge is one of those things that cannot be understood by anyone apart from those who dedicate themselves to it. (De Homine, cap. x. In Thomas Hobbes and William Molesworth, Thomæ Hobbes Malmesburiensis Opera Philosophica (1841), Vol. 3, 69. Retrieved online, my translation).

Education is about broadening the circle and making sure that the power is distributed more equally and broadly in our society.

Image courtesy of mtsofan on Flickr, Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


One reply on “The Value of Education”

Thanks so much for writing this post Sharon. I couldn’t agree more! As someone who has benefited greatly from education and as someone who values my critical thinking, it seems Penelope needs to take a critical and reflective look at her argument. All she need do is look towards the countries that restrict and deny access to education. Education opens the eyes and broadens the mind. I love the Thomas Hobbes quote!

In one sense though, I agree with Penelope because I think there is a gap between education and work, which unfortunately matters where student fees and debt are concerned. However, many educators (like us!!) are working to close that gap.

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