Higher Education: Making Us Better Resources or Better Humans?

James Tonkowich | ReligionToday.com Columnist | Thursday, November 1, 2012

Higher Education: Making Us Better Resources or Better Humans?

"What are you going to do with a major in philosophy?” asked a friend one day late in my senior year of college.

Before I could answer that I was going to theological school, someone else chimed in, “Pump gas, the same as the rest of us.”

Now, while a BA in philosophy didn’t make me a philosopher and no corporation has ever employed me as vice president for philosophy, philosophy was a great and even practical major.

That’s why an article at Yahoo, "Don’t Bother Earning These Five Degrees," caught my eye. Would I find philosophy among the five undesirables? Of course I would along with architecture, anthropology and archeology, ethnic or civilization studies, and information systems.

The article reports the opinions of Vicki Lynn, senior vice president at Universum, a recruiting company. About philosophy or religious studies (one is apparently as undesirable as the other) she said, “In my opinion, these degrees are not at all marketable. I don’t even know what people do with these degrees to be honest. Unless they’re willing to go all the way to a PhD in philosophy, for instance, their career paths are zero.”

Where to begin?

First, Ms. Lynn and, based on the article, most employers — the people students should earn college degrees to impress — don’t understand that studying philosophy teaches students to read carefully, think rationally, write clearly, listen attentively, and argue coherently. Philosophy majors and graduates of philosophy-heavy Great Books schools such as Thomas Aquinas College, Wyoming Catholic College, and St. John’s College have been pleased to discover that they possess extremely marketable skills for business, education, criminal justice, psychology, and even computer science — the article’s alternatives to the undesirable five.

Ms Lynn is also plagued by the all-too-common notion that higher education is job training and that the university is a trade school. In policy discussions about education from preschool on the assumption is that education trains people to compete in the global economy. Once that meant metal shop and mechanics. Today it means business administration and computer science.

But there’s an older, more venerable, and deeply Christian understanding of education. Education cultivates wonder and grows students in wisdom and virtue without which freedom, democracy, and prosperity are impossible.

In fairness, vocational degree programs require credits in the humanities, seeking to broaden and enrich students’ intellectual lives. But this article seems to indicate that the purpose of a degree is not broadening and enriching students’ intellectual lives, but impressing prospective employers.

Which leads me to the biggest error: a deeply flawed understanding of the human person. Occupy Wall Street raged against corporate America, but for the wrong reasons. The great sin of corporate America is not greed, but the commodification of everything including the commodification of people whether they’re employees or customers.

Somehow we’ve become comfortable with the language of business and commerce when we define human beings. People are “users,” “consumers,” “producers,” and “resources.” I have good friends in “human resources,” but must we use the same word to talk about our fellow human beings as we do to talk about coal and oil (natural resources), computers (systems resources), and furniture (office resources)?

If you and I are simply resources that make the economic machine run by working and earning and buying and using and consuming, then it stands to reason that education should aim at making us more skilled, efficient and productive resources. And that is precisely the view of most American education today. Our schools are organized to train useful human resources.

If, by contrast, you and I are creatures made in the image of God who have an eternal destiny “to glorify God and enjoy him forever,” then education must aim higher. It must aim at wonder, wisdom, and virtue. It should make us better humans rather than simply making us better resources.

Does this mean that everyone should major in philosophy or one of the other liberal arts? Is this a blanket condemnation of all vocational majors? The answer to both questions is no. Interests, abilities, and callings vary. We should follow God’s lead and learn to do what we love.

But using a college education simply as a means of impressing employers so that we can become good workers and consumers sells our education and the human dignity that is our birthright for a rather meager bowl of pottage.

(In the interest of full disclosure, my son is a Thomas Aquinas graduate who, after founding a non-profit and spending a few years in business, is now dean of student life at Wyoming Catholic.)

Publication date: November 1, 2012