University Education Leads to Enriched Lives

Ostensibly, people go to college to get degrees that will help them get jobs. Most jobs, even ones that don’t pay much more than minimum wage, require college diplomas these days. Many people balk at this requirement, which is understandable, given the student debt crisis, declining college completion rates and soaring tuition costs.

Of course, not everyone should feel that college is necessary for the career they want, especially trade jobs that demand mastery of skills like welding, electrical repair and natural gas extraction. But when we choose to see college as it was originally conceived, it seems more like a necessity no matter the future vocation.

Human beings seem to have a natural quest for knowledge that goes beyond survival and extends into questions of creation, purpose and beingness. Scholars generally cite the University of Al Quaraouiyine, which was founded in Morocco in 859, as the oldest degree-granting university. It was during the Medieval period, universities gained in popularity as essential for educating a populace that can solve problems and contribute to civil society.

At some point in the second half of the 20th century, the purpose of a university education shifted for many. Higher education was no longer sought to prepare people for future careers but for jobs–a finite skill set. Rather than teaching students how to think critically and ground their decision-making in a vast knowledge base that spans biology, world history, literature and math, to name a few, attention leaned toward making the majority of objectives for higher education job based.

The difference between these two models is significant. Training students for a job is important, but expanding their knowledge base and critical thinking skills will ensure that they do not just do well at their first job out of college but also climb the ladder of success. Vocational schools do an excellent job of helping students learn how to become helicopter mechanics, nurse’s aides and carpenters, but universities help students apply those skill sets to solving problems. Ultimately, these critical thinkers become leaders in their companies and chosen fields.

Universities also enrich the lives of their graduates for decades after they receive their diplomas. One of the missions of English studies is to use language and literature to help students achieve fulfilling lives. To that end, when I teach Great Books–a class that teaches students to appreciate classic and contemporary literature–my final exam consists of an exercise. I ask pairs of students to stand up in front of the class holding empty martini glasses and pretend that they are at a party with co-workers and others. I then ask them to discuss one of the books that we have read during the semester. If they can talk about that book insightfully (not just summary) with their peer, then I consider my job done. Being able to critically read and discuss any material is essential for life success in the 21st century for all people, not just academics.

As the parable goes, “If you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he will eat for life.” We need to regain our focus on teaching university students not just how to get a job after graduation, but how to use a depth of knowledge and critical thinking skills that can help them build fulfilling careers, participate in democracy, and ultimately, live satisfying, enriched lives.

Christina Fisanick, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English at California University of Pennsylvania and a 1996 graduate of West Liberty University. She lives in Wheeling.


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