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From the admin chair

Your degree is not a waste of time

Grim tales are taking over our story.


If there is one virtue that university education values above all else it is critical thinking. Doubt, not the false security of certainty, is what we seek to instill in our students; we value questions over answers, because only in withstanding the most challenging questions can an answer begin to satisfy the truly critical mind. Oh, we are hardly immune to the paralysis of orthodoxy, but the very essence of scholarship is to relentlessly question what is known, how it is known, and whether there is some further insight to be had by a mind open to what it does not yet know. This is why “revolutions” – disruptive events in the political sphere – are so essential, and so frequent, in the academic world. Maybe too frequent, and appearing to outsiders as a ferment of undirected, purposeless chaos.

One of the most pernicious illusions that critical thinking can dispel is the “default narrative” – a story full of Colbertian “truthiness” that is repeated so often that it displaces actual facts. The default narrative satisfies what some people (especially those with loud, influential voices) wish were true, so much so that whether it actually is true becomes a side issue. History is full of default narratives that have eventually fallen to critical thinking: the heliocentric solar system, the divine right of kings, the “non-person” status of Canadian women, supply-side economics, WMDs in Baghdad …

The default narrative of university education these days, at least as it is related outside academia, is one of hopeless, hapless insufficiency. I don’t mean just the tired cliché of overpaid, ivory- tower eggheads, but also the more pernicious assumption that in the end a university degree is not worth the paper it’s printed on; that graduates waste time, learn no useful skills and end up flipping burgers while struggling to pay off crippling debt. There’s an element of wish fulfillment and fairy-tale comeuppance here: the modern Icarus ends up unemployed and broke for his arrogant pursuit of “higher learning.”

Yes, we all know of people who have achieved success without postsecondary education; society revels in the archetype of the university-dropout CEO (famously Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, in a field where the default narrative insists universities are failing to impart economically useful skills). What we forget is that the massive success of those three unique individuals depended on armies of highly educated, degreed employees who turned their CEO’s vision into achievable reality. Just because some dropouts succeed fantastically doesn’t mean that dropping out is a statistically optimal strategy.

And an understanding of statistics – a discipline that can lead to counterintuitive but irrefutable conclusions that trump anecdotal “evidence” – is one example of the critical thinking that universities foster, and an answer to the question: why should I believe A over B, even though B seems “truthier?” Statistics belie the default narrative and contextualize the catchy anecdotes. Some graduates do poorly, others well. But the average graduate is more employable than non-graduates, with a higher salary, better health and in many aspects improved quality of life. University graduates vote, volunteer, participate as citizens and create economic and social value disproportionate to their mere numbers and to the amount society invests in their education.

Readers of this magazine hardly need to be convinced of this point, and my purpose is not to trumpet the specific statistics; they are easy to find. Rather, we need to recognize that unless we, who believe in the value of university education, do more to confront and challenge the default narrative, we will suffer ever-declining support and resource retrenchment. Once “everybody knows” that universities are over-funded, it’s a simple deduction to reach a destructive conclusion. Right now, colleges are speaking with one voice, publicizing their practical, job-oriented approach in old and new media, but universities are presenting mixed and sometimes competing messages to counter the default narrative. (I’m in no way begrudging the colleges’ success; universities just need to stop seeing colleges as competitors rather than complementary collaborators.)

We must emphasize that university graduates do gain important skills, because the public dialogue is focused on skills, but we also need to start shifting that dialogue to recognizing the powerful but less-obvious benefits of liberal education. Critical thinking, intellectual curiosity, open-mindedness: these are the drivers of real creativity. Skill alone without critical thinking is the expertise of a computer, not of the humans who use computers to serve their minds and change the world.

Maureen Mancuso is provost and vice-president, academic, at the University of Guelph and a 3M National Teaching Fellow.
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  1. retired faculty / June 6, 2013 at 11:59

    Sorry. Your article reads like the expiring breath a ship makes before it is ready to go down. Talk of doubt, there is no doubt like a complex thoughtful human who can not get work and whose life is so uncertain because of it – they understand uncertainty. Imagine that there was limited work compensation like in the US in this scenario…there we are talking educated poverty.

    Your article reeks of stable life and certain employment, your article bespeaks knowing where your next paycheck is coming from and the one after that and the one after that. Your article bespeaks the confidence of an “in the club member reassuring the other members.”

    While university is in my opinion, an extremely worthwhile experience, it has become in this society a required ticket item – which can not pay for itself any more. It is worse for many graduate students who fell for grad path chimera and put in the time and money only to end up in unstable work adjunct work, often provided by universities.

    University is a business which must sell dreams to people who often can not afford them, this financial over extension has been made possible through loan programs. Based on as much shiny advertising as any other business uses: university is a business that capitalizes on a ‘certain’ belief, a rather mysterious one – one that was perhaps once true but now is in quite the quagmire: This belief says this university will make their life better. As jobs have become harder and harder to get: it has become the ultimate finishing school – now a required personal experience that has an expensive finishing ticket. It this way university is now a full on consumption oriented industry looking for those to consume. The difference is those who acquire regular consumption debt can declare bankruptcy on this debt…but educational debt is for many a dream deferred and deferred and deferred. Once they have their bach degree they can not borrow easily to go back and get the certificate degree that might actually get them work. The student loan industry has its noose around the university in this way.

    Regards students:It makes sense that they are putting the press on university to show the same stats that they would ask for when they buy a house. Are these stats good for university – accurate to its work – accurate to the debt grads will bear, accurate to the intense character needs of the social order they will live in? Hmmmmm likely not….but the press is very understandable because the university is now fully dependent on the student loan system and in this way has transferred so much of its debt to the backs of students.

    Yes they do have their improved character to fall back on – but wow that is such an expensive formation process. And we live in a world that will villify them if they do not “have the character” to meet their debt load

    Do you really get what this means? This means a whole harvest of thoughtful wonderful people are experiencing long journeys with finding work and unstable unbenefited work environs. Do you really get what world we are bequeathing them to and what they are facing?

    I do not think the answer is for university to become a job-mill and an extended hand of the bent on labour force. I personally do not think the answer has ever been for university to lose its heritage and calling.

    But in shoving much of its debt burden on to the back of students – a lot has happened and those graduating are the ones bearing the hard adversity of that. Faculty and administrators might be bearing it in dealing with a fight for distorted vision but this is nothing like long term unemployment or underemployment so many graduates both undergrad and graduates are facing – we are bequeathing them to bewildering character building journeys unlike what many of us have faced. [continues]

  2. retired faculty / June 6, 2013 at 12:00

    [continued from previous comment]

    We have to stop taking refuge in not getting what they are facing and experiencing. We have to stop taking refuge in blaming them for”not being competitive enough” to survive the market out there.

    Todays Graduates are bearing an economic hardship and navigating an job maze that we can not fathom. They should object to this! Listen to them. Something is wrong.

    WAKE UP!!!!! This is a situation of adversity that is being created and university is increasingly becoming a club for the rich that we require a temp card to: in the form of both graduate and undergrad degrees. What happens to them as we as they are unable to get meaningful work. What happens to them as we tire of filling out job references for them as they cannot get this work….

    The legacy we are part of supporting is currently creating wonderful, thoughtful, creative workers who cheerfully and courageously are making a better world through thoughtful part time, under or non benefited employment- but they a part of a rising force that will have to object eventually to this system.

    Please stop thinking of what to do to make yourself and your club feel better in this system, and start doing what you can to help make this better. It is well past time to do so.

  3. Retired faculty / June 6, 2013 at 12:25

    Let me add one more thing…Grim tales are being told because for many graduates things are grim.

    To use the boat analogy: when the titanic happened, what did those who had access to a life boat say to themselves as they rowed slowly away from those locked in the cabins below as the ship sank… did they say to themselves: “Grim tales are taking over our story. Let us find the positive tales to tell?”

    There is something big going on here: exercise more than just the creativity to spin grimness away from yourself and what you name as “our story”.-

  4. Dr. Strangelove / June 9, 2013 at 13:17

    Its interesting to see the quantity of these sad articles multiply. Yes, it is true, 80% of the content taught in universities is irrelevant. And unfortunately, kids continue to let some of the most esoteric, dehydrated un uncreative people on the planet guide them in an intellectual journal (and I among them). We all see where this is leading (hence these dumb articles making continuous pleas for the value of academia). Full disclosure: I finished a phd last year from U of T and never picked up the degree because in fact, I know its not worth the paper its printed on.

  5. Karl / June 17, 2013 at 22:29

    Hi Maureen,

    Contrary to the others, I enjoyed your article. I think you’ve put your finger right on the main benefit of a university education, which is the flourishing of independent, critical thought. However, I will air a few concerns.

    I think the biggest problem facing universities lies in how to market “the powerful but less-obvious benefits of liberal education. Critical thinking, intellectual curiosity, open-mindedness” (your words from near the end of the column). If it is claimed that these are the skills that university graduates attain, then by implication we are claiming that other people do not possess these. Because a substantial portion of university funding comes from the taxpayers, it seems like an unsound strategy to claim that they are uncritical thinkers, not intellectually curious, and closed minded. Even when a positive spin is put on the message (‘university is not required for these traits, but it does help instill them’), people may counter that if these benefits can be attained without the massive expensive of a formal university education, then they should simply be gained by independent study and character development. If we fall back to a position that holds that a university education is necessary for acquiring these skills, then we peddle a narrative that is both untrue and offensive to a major source of funding.

    Now, I also think that the other two commentators have some valid points, but they don’t necessarily sink the upshot of this column. In response to Dr. Strangelove: either you are claiming that the program was worthless in the sense of poorly formed and not educational, or your are claiming that the program itself was fine but that the skills you learned from it (as well as the corresponding degree) are not valuable in the marketplace.

    If it is the former that your are suggesting, than this is a serious issue. Universities should have high standards. I will merely suggest that some programs don’t meet these standards and are run by groups of people who want to think one way only and will not brook disagreement. Such insular programs run counter to the very idea of the university as a hotbed for controversy and discussion, as the article suggests. Now, I won’t dig in my heels here and say any ‘new’ (i.e. non-traditional programs) are like this. In fact, I bet many of them are not, but are instead established to focus research in some particular area that is otherwise underrepresented.

    If Dr. Strangelove meant the second of the options I listed, which is that the education, while valuable intrinsically and it was of good quality, carries no weight in the marketplace, then this is a rather serious issue. I believe this was much of retired faculty’s point. I also agree with retired faculty that accurate data should be available to students regarding the employment outcomes of their degrees before they undertake them.

    (Post continued below)

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