We live in an age in which the value of education is defined largely in economic terms. The higher your level of education, the greater your earning power. The more educated the population of a community or region, the better its chances for economic growth.
This is a necessary and appropriate message, underpinned by indisputable data. It’s especially important in places like Northeast Mississippi where the low educational attainment level of much of the population is a hindrance not only to individual prosperity but to the broader economic health of the region.
Yet it’s easy in the repetitive pounding of this message to lose sight of the intrinsic value of an education for its own sake. If all we see in education – and all we pursue – is its monetary payoff, then we miss something very important.
What of the component of education that helps a person to gain a deeper understanding of the world and his or her place in it, beyond the strictly economic realm? What about education that encourages thoughtful reflection on timeless truths and honest and rigorous self-examination? What about education as a means of exploring and discovering not just how to make a living, but how to make a life?
These were the purposes of education long before it became primarily about preparation for employment. But in this technical age – and especially in tough economic times, when jobs are scarce – education for its own sake is considered by the broad culture as a luxury at best.
Still, there are institutions that continue to hold out on the cultural consensus of higher education as primarily about training for specialized employment. Out front in this effort are the liberal arts colleges and universities that insist that a broad education has value to the individual and society that extends well beyond economic considerations.
We are not solely economic beings; there is so much more to being human. But even our role in the economy – how we choose what we do, and how we live it out, how adaptable we may be as the economy changes – is influenced by much more than the specific preparation for a job.
Last week, Millsaps College in Jackson inaugurated its new president, Dr. Robert Pearigen, and the value of a liberal arts education was naturally the rhetorical centerpiece of the day.
Millsaps, my alma mater, is a small college whose 120-year history has been a relentless and often distinguished pursuit of the idea that education is about molding thoughtful, engaged, reflective, and service-oriented graduates – men and women enriched and empowered by exposure to a wide range of the classical learning disciplines and a robust environment of free and open academic inquiry. The new president fits the mold perfectly, having come from an administrative position in another even older institution rooted in the same tradition, The University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn.
The inauguration was an unusual melding, at least for a brief moment, of two unique institutions of higher learning – one Methodist-affiliated, one Episcopal – with shared values that to some extent run against the cultural currents of the day. Three former presidents, called vice-chancellors, of Sewanee were present to honor their former colleague Pearigen, and the keynote speaker was Pulitzer Prize-winning author, TV host and former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, a Sewanee graduate.
It was an entirely comfortable combination because both Sewanee and Millsaps people speak the same language about the role of a liberal arts education in forming and shaping individuals and society for the better, in providing a perspective on the world and on life that a more narrow education may miss.
But these are not aloof, ivory-tower concepts. Pearigen and Meacham each asserted that the highest value of the liberal arts education is attained when it is both appreciated for its own sake – the pure joy of learning, elevating the individual – and when that individual is motivated to use that learning in a life of service.
The liberal arts education, its proponents contend, is the ideal preparation for economic life in a constantly changing world because it teaches creativity, adaptability, and above all, the ability to think logically and systematically about almost anything.
When the hottest jobs of the next decade are probably not even invented yet, that’s pretty good employment preparation.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
LLOYD GRAY / NEMS Daily Journal