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University is not job training

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There are dozens of potential factors to consider when choosing whether to go to university, which program to enter, or which major to declare: interest, difficulty, and quality of programming are just a few of the big ones. These factors are often in competition: tons of people would say they are interested in becoming an astronaut, but tons fewer chase after a master’s in physics once they reckon with the prospect of six to eight years of Tsiolkovsky rocket equation derivations.

Another dominant factor is money — both in the sense that university has been getting increasingly cost prohibitive over the past 30 years, and in that we’ve placed a strong cultural importance on something called a “practical degree.”

This degree will teach you “real world skills,” is marketable, and looks great on a resumé. It qualifies you for jobs in at least one field that pays well and is frequently hiring. You won’t have to worry too much about the loans you took out to get it, because your financial magazine of choice predicts you’ll have them paid off in just a few years.

As student debt grows, post-degree salaries and employment rates take on more importance, and the complicated choice of which post-secondary path to follow gets slowly boiled down to a single solvable equation of cost and benefit — if you’re in sciences, you should take a computer science major. If you’re in arts, then… uhh… economics?

To take this further, practicality has an influence on many programs’ internal design. Of MacEwan University’s journalism major, for example, a common complaint is that some of the classes stray from technical skills like interviewing or using a camera, focusing instead on theoretical material like the social role of the press or why having one corporation own over half of Canada’s newspapers might be bad.

In short, a degree is exactly as valuable as the level to which it prepares you to enter the workforce.

Within this framework there are of course the implied opposite “impractical degrees,” such as those outlined in a list published in Forbes in 2012 titled “the 10 worst college majors,” that includes anthropology, philosophy, English literature, and history. There are no prizes for guessing that the only two criteria Forbes used to order this list were: median income and employment rate for recent graduates. A quick Google search for “least practical degrees” will yield dozens of articles that say approximately the same thing.

There are a few common arguments against this way of thinking. Some say that an English or philosophy degree, for example, does impart job skills — albeit intangible ones like the fabled critical thinking — which is probably true. Others argue that as a matter of personal happiness, you should pick a career based on your interests in the first place, which is definitely true.

I would argue that a university education doesn’t need to have anything to do with your ability to do a job at all — that there is more to learn than what someone will pay you to know.

To continue with the journalism major as an example, since that’s the program I know most intimately, the impractical classes generally concern either the industry behind the news or how to analyze information. They’ll teach you how to be critical of what you read, how to detect spin, and about the complex and far-reaching media systems people rely on for their information everyday — how the different elements work together or compete, and what impact that has on the news itself.

I’m not going to be putting any of this on my resumé, but it is worth knowing if not for any other reason than to have a better understanding of that part of our society. This knowledge is built upon over time, and the field evolves and improves as a result. The hard sciences figured this out a long time ago — Einstein proposes mass-energy equivalence in 1905, nobody else knows what it means, and 37 years later you get nuclear energy — but this is true of any subject you choose. Not many people would argue that studying ethics are unimportant, or that there aren’t any lessons to be learned from our past, even though there aren’t exactly scores of philosopher or historian jobs up for grabs.

I’m sympathetic to needing to pay off student loans — I have over $30,000 worth — and really the argument here is to make university less of a financial burden (free, ideally). Education systems and the job markets are different things. They have different goals, and demand different things of the people in them, and students should not have to focus so much on what a degree will get for them, and more on what they want to learn about.

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