09/12/2012 10:40 am ET Updated Nov 12, 2012

You're Making Bad Educational Choices

I promised you a series on the purpose of education, and here's the second installment (better late than never).

Last time, I argued that education has no 'one true purpose:' that educational activities serve a variety of purposes for different people. Philosophers of education have spilled much ink on the subject, but they are wrong to assume that there is an objective purpose of education. The purpose of education is subjective, and depends on each person's needs, characteristics, and interests.

This position ruffled some feathers with my Facebook friends. I was accused of semantic trickery. I think some people who have not defected from grad school, like I did, felt threatened in a way, because they want to believe that their work has intrinsic value even if it doesn't get them a job later (Actually, that work may indeed have value to them -- just not intrinsically, in my opinion).

Today, I am going to make a point that, hopefully, is less divisive: Alot of people's education choices really suck. Whether or not the purpose of education is somehow fixed and objective, or whether the purpose of education is subjective and relative to individuals, many Americans are choosing educational activities that cannot be justified in either case. Have you noticed this?

On Team Objective Purpose, we often find philosophers and cultural critics arguing that a "liberal education" opens hearts and minds, and that everyone should receive this kind of education whether or not they want it. A long stay in higher education, complete with many classes across various disciplines, is the path to enlightenment. Moreover, a properly educated person, a true lover of wisdom, will come to enjoy the intellectual journey rather than undertaking it begrudgingly.

On Team Subjective Purpose, we find others arguing that not everyone may benefit from a "liberal education" and that to many students, the real value in education lies in its potential to increase one's human capital, leading to better jobs, higher wages, social mobility, etc. There's no particular reason to think that job training-type education will be fun, but it will at least be worth it.

Higher education, in many cases, has become an experience bearing neither type of value. Students aren't particularly enjoying their classes or becoming intellectually well-rounded, AND they aren't setting themselves up for financial or career success.

For example: A student straight out of high school takes a major in something generic and business-related because his parents encourage it, but knows that ultimately he's not really cut out for business. A divorced mom spends five-plus years missing time with her kids to work on a degree in psychology at a "dropout factory"-type community college, although she's got a job she likes that doesn't offer a raise for the degree. A practicing artist or musician does a master's degree in a program whose teachers don't share her aesthetics. A person who already works for a successful startup writing math curriculum pursues an M.Ed in... writing math curriculum.

I don't mean to challenge the basic idea that a college degree, and even a graduate degree, often makes financial sense. But these examples and similar situations are lose-lose: not fun, but also not likely to provide a return on investment.

Why are so many people embroiled in these lose-lose situations? Do YOUR education choices suck? Next time, I'll share some tips for thinking more clearly about the purpose of education and how to make better educational choices.