APU Everyday Scholar Podcast

Debate: What’s the Value of Higher Education?

Podcast by Dr. Bjorn Mercer, DMA, Department Chair, Communication and World Languages and
James Lendvay, Faculty Member, School of Arts, Humanities, and Education

In this episode of The Everyday Scholar, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks with APU faculty member James Lendvay about the arguments for – and against – earning a college degree in America. How do society, economics, traditions, the media and other entities play into a young person’s decision to seek higher education?

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Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And today we’re talking with James Lendvay, faculty in the School of Arts, Humanities, and Education. And our conversation today is about perceptions of higher education. Welcome, James.

James Lendvay: Hello, Bjorn. Thanks for having me again.

Bjorn Mercer: Yeah, definitely. I love this topic. It’s important to talk about. Honestly, we should always be talking about perceptions of any levels of education. And so let’s go and jump in. Is there currently a perfect storm of sentiment against higher education, or is higher education facing an existential crisis? And if not, should it be?

James Lendvay: Well, those are questions that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. The reason I wanted to talk about this was because I’ve noticed some attitudes that are coming from, sometimes from students that I have, sometimes from social media comments you might come across, and even public figures making, I guess, I’ll say disparaging comments about higher education and university education in general. So as I’ve been thinking about this, I put together an argument as we like to do in philosophy, and try to pull apart all the pieces. And so the pieces of any argument are going to be your premises and then your conclusion. So the conclusion in general that I’m hearing, and this would be the belief that it seems that people are voicing, has some combination of the following elements.

One is that college is possibly a waste of time and money, okay, broadly speaking. Some people have been making the complaint that we culturally require college education, and that those who don’t have a college education maybe are treated as second class citizens, that we’re forcing out people with experience in positions that they could perfectly well serve, but we’re prioritizing those with education over experience. And so there’s a number of conclusions here that people seem to be coming to about what we should be thinking about as far as the goals and the direction for higher education. And so, we can take this as a broad conclusion and then look at some of the premises that are built into that, that I’ve identified at least. And premise one would be that college is too expensive and there’s, of course, a lot of debate right now about student loan forgiveness and controlling cost of education.

Another premise is that college or university education is neither necessary nor sufficient for earning a living, that we can find all kinds of other ways to get into good careers without having to have a formal education in college. And then I think that translates into thinking about college more as career training than the broad based liberal arts education that we often associate. A third premise would be that higher education is neither necessary nor sufficient for becoming a critical thinker, or a productive member of society. And a fourth premise might be that college is ultimately, and this would be a worst case scenario just up front for liberal indoctrination. So that’s what I see as the pieces that are going into this larger criticism of higher education.

Bjorn Mercer: And those are all wonderful things to talk about. And honestly, they should be talked about. And as I have recently been discussing how people should talk about things, if we have disagreements, those disagreements should occur between reasonable people, is higher education indoctrinating young adults? In general, I’d say no, because there are so many different colleges and universities that you can definitely choose examples from here or there, and point to those. But as a whole, it’s hard to say that, that is the overriding experience for people. Do you find that people have strong opinions on that one, or is it mainly just something you hear say in the media?

James Lendvay: Well, to your point there specifically that there’s a lot of generalization that goes on in these kinds of debates. And so I think we often get started on these debates talking about very different things. And, of course, if that’s the case, we’re not going to get very far. And that was one thing I wanted to start with is thinking about the difference between college and education. And so, one of the concerns about the cost of college is that it’s too expensive, but are we saying that the college experience is too expensive, or that education is too expensive? And I think those are two very different things.

Bjorn Mercer: Before you go on, I love that you differentiate between college and education. College is different than education. Everyone can educate themselves or educate their family or their friends from their home honestly. We could stay home and we could read all the great books of philosophy and never go into one classroom. However, college does provide an experience for many people.

James Lendvay: Yeah, that’s something I wanted to get back to too. But the distinction between college and education, that really dawned on me when I was listening to Bill Maher on his HBO show not long ago, complaining about the cost of education. And he uses as an example, that there’s a lazy river in the middle of the student center. And to him, this was just the most egregious example of college education waste, just the idea that people want to go to college, but are they learning anything, or are they just goofing off for four years? And so, I heard that and I thought, well, if that’s what people want to pay for, that’s fine. And that’s understandable if people are looking at it like, well, I don’t want my tax dollars going to fund your education when your education is just four years of having a good time.

I noticed this too, at the beginning of the pandemic, I was at that time still teaching in person. And one of the schools I was teaching for, everybody was going online. And I noticed some students complaining about that because they said, well, I don’t want to do this –  I want to be in college – I want to stay in the dorm. If I can’t do that, let’s just put this off. I don’t want to miss that experience. And so I think we really have to separate those two ideas before we start making general, or generalized statements about higher education.

Bjorn Mercer: Now from your experience and what you’ve looked at, we are now trying to educate far more students than we ever have. In two generations we’ve gone from, I believe bachelor attainment being in the low teens now into the thirties maybe, that is literally educating millions and millions of more students. Now with that come cost. But at the same time, and like you said, and I agree, if students want a college education, then let them have it, but there should be options for them if they just want to get a good education that it’s stripped of all of superfluous items.

James Lendvay: Yeah. And there are options, which I think is part of the reason why this argument, we see a lot of oversimplification, where let’s just throw the baby out here with the proverbial bathwater, because there’s other things you can do. And I see a lot of arguments for you don’t need college because you can just go to vocational school. And yes, of course, that’s an option. And there are options for doing a college education in a more financially responsible way, maybe starting off a community college, for example. And this ties to my second premise here that college is neither necessary nor sufficient for earning a living.

So you’re going to learn a bunch of stuff you don’t need, the stuff you do need, you can get it elsewhere. And all you’re going to do is spend a lot of money to do that. And okay, that’s a fair argument. That’s a fair way to support this idea that college needs to be reconceived. So, that would be the second premise. The third will get us into some other ideas here that college is neither necessary nor sufficient for becoming a critical thinker or productive member of society. So one of the things I did in preparing for this is to collect some things that I’ve been seeing, some comments that people have been making in different places. And I just happen to come across this Facebook user comment. I’m not going to be able to attribute authorship to this, but in general, this person said, “College is not needed for critical thinking. People who are inclined to think critically don’t wait to be taught. College is not about thinking, it’s about just getting a piece of paper.”

And that, to me, ties to this idea that what I’ve been calling “D.I.Y.-ism” which is just, we can do this ourselves. There’s enough information now on the internet. There’s nothing that I’m going to learn in college that I can’t learn elsewhere, either if we’re talking about on-the-job training, or if we’re talking about being productive members of society. I think there’s belief that a lot of it’s just common sense. You can’t teach that in college anyway. And if it’s something specific, I can go figure that out myself. And there’s no reason that I can see to pay for that, and certainly not to pay tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to do that.

So those are the three main premises. And I think if you put all those together, it does make for a compelling argument. What exactly the conclusion is? I’m not sure. I don’t know what people are really suggesting. Should we just shut down every college and university? I don’t think that would make much sense. I don’t hear unfortunately, a lot of really good productive suggestions for how we move forward with this, in this more broad public debate.

Bjorn Mercer: No, and those are great. And I just want to make a comment about the critical thinking aspect, because you don’t need to go to college to become a good of critical thinker. People whom have lived a longer and read and experienced will gain those critical thinking skills. I think of my own critical thinking skills at 18 to 22 at that age, when I went to a traditional undergraduate experience and I needed to experience things, I needed to be exposed to different people.

And ideally, if you have that college experience where we’re talking about going to a physical campus and say living there and walking to classes, ideally you’re going to be exposed to different people from different parts of the country, or different parts of the world and different cultures.

And then going on to the whole liberal aspect of college. In my own experience, I can think of maybe one professor whom had a little too liberal ideas and then talked about him a little too much, but most professors I know, and especially the way I do it, I’m excited to talk about issues. And then for the class to not know if I’m a liberal, or a conservative, or whatever, and that’s my goal and my job to be like, I’m going to be as unbiased as possible to not sway anybody.

James Lendvay: That’s something that happened to me a few years ago, I had a student come to me early in the course and say, “I’ll admit, I am a political conservative, and I’m concerned about taking your class because I don’t want to get a bad grade,” as though I’m just going to superimpose, presumably that I would have liberal values, I’m going to superimpose those and make students conform. And if they don’t, then that’s just going to translate into a bad grade. And the student said, “I’ve had friends who are also conservatives and they got bad grades, just because of their beliefs.” I said, “Well, maybe that’s happened, but that shouldn’t. And I know that wouldn’t happen in my case.” And I think that [inaudible 00:12:33], what you said that, that’s not our job.

Bjorn Mercer: And from a college administration perspective, if somebody was given a grade because of their “beliefs,” they could file a grievance, and that could be investigated because that is not education. If they have beliefs and they support those beliefs with good ideas and facts and figures, and a really good argument, they’ll get a great grade, even if it’s different than say what the other portions of students are talking about. I think this is where information literacy comes in and civility, because again, people can be liberal, they can be conservative, they can be anarchist. I don’t care. Just support what you say.

James Lendvay: We are all human too, and it is hard sometimes to separate those things. And so if we have a student, for example, who wants to just rail against vaccination or something like that, you have to take a breath and say, okay, it’s not what I agree with, but let’s look at what’s really being said and pull the arguments apart. And that’s really what critical thinking is about. And so, we have to stick to that if we want to be academically honest.

Bjorn Mercer: So, now my next question what do these attitudes and arguments imply for all education, say primary and secondary?

James Lendvay: So I had a conversation with a friend sometime last year and his concern had to do with something we’ve already talked about where folks in his industry were maybe being passed up for promotions because college graduates were coming in with no experience, but a piece of paper. And that seemed really unfair. And that’s certainly a very understandable concern. And so I started thinking about that and I started thinking about what really is the value of education? Is it more valuable than experience? And would it really make sense for businesses and industry to set up these criteria and say, to be eligible for this position, you have to have a bachelor’s degree, no matter how much experience you have?

Really what that got me thinking about was, what level of education do we need for a lot of jobs? As I think I mentioned some people have expressed the idea that there may be treated as second class citizens because we have a cultural emphasis on having a college education. And if you don’t have that, you haven’t really done the basics to meet some level of involvement in society somehow. But we’ve been doing that for a long time with just having a high school diploma. In a lot of sense, people are marginalized based on that, where you can’t get a job if you don’t have at least that much education.

But thinking about it a little further, I thought, well, how much education do we really need for a lot of the jobs that people do? And I thought, I don’t know, many people could get away with middle school education. If you can read at a certain level and do arithmetic, you can get by in a lot of jobs. And maybe there’d be a little more you’d need to know that could be taught on the job. But if we’re going to say that higher education is too much education, so to speak, or too much of the wrong kind of education, I would say make the same argument for a high school education. Why stop at college?

Bjorn Mercer: And I love that you brought this up because all of education, and the purpose of education, should really be discussed and the stratification of grade levels, and I would say many politicians’ obsession with we have to compete on the world’s level. It’s very difficult to educate millions and millions of people? Versus, for example, educating Denmark or Finland, or even Taiwan, which is obviously larger than those countries, where the population is homogeneous.

James Lendvay: That’s a good point. And tied to this idea of where we want to set this societal minimum of education. If some of the complaints, especially about going back to the student loan crisis, if we’re worried about using tax money to bail people out, so to speak, or even to subsidize higher education, the same argument could be made for why are tax dollars going to teach high school? If an eighth-grade reading level is really the minimum, why don’t we just cut it off there and then make high school also the same model as college, where if you want that education, you can pay for it, but that’s not going to be a social responsibility.

Bjorn Mercer: The structure we have has been around for several generations, and once a structure is put in place, especially by the government, it’s very difficult to get rid of. And so we have elementary and middle school/junior high and high school. And to change anything is very difficult. And so could we go more towards a trade organization like in Europe where high school is more of a trade route than “high school,” in which high school you only learn the basics? High school should be a good liberal education, but then so often students, when they go to college, the first two years of college is just catching up to where they should be, “should be.” But then again, we’re trying to educate millions and millions of people in this country. And the discrepancy unfortunately comes between rich districts and poor districts, and rich areas and poor areas.

James Lendvay: Yeah. And that could actually be a benefit perhaps, we trying to find what education is. I happened to come across an interview with, I don’t know if you know this, I guess she’s a rapper. Her name is [Danielle Bregoli], she goes by Bhad Bhabie.

So for whatever reason, I found this interview with her and they asked her, you took yourself out of school, right? And she said, yeah, I don’t recall what grade it was, but she stopped attending school. And she said, I had better things to do. I knew enough. I knew how to read. I didn’t know how to do divisions, she said, but you have calculators for that. And as it turns out, maybe she was right. She ended up making millions of dollars as an artist, or as a pop figure. And my concern is that young kids hear that kind of stuff. And then they’re going to say, what am I doing in school? How’s that going to translate into attitudes about the education?

And then similarly, I have a friend who has a young son who expressed to me, I know everything I need to know already in seventh grade and what I want to do with my life. I don’t need any more education. And now, of course, these are kids, and I thought the same thing when I was learning algebra in school, what am I going to do with this in my life? We maybe all thought that, but that same idea is now being expressed by adults who are questioning the education system.

Bjorn Mercer: It really makes me think of, when you said about the seventh grader, that is a young age. It also makes me think of 18- to 22-year-olds that we hear sometimes where they think they know everything. And there is something universal about humans, especially 18- to 22-year-olds, where they think they know everything. The older generation is a sellout, and we see the world clearly. And I remember being the exact same way when I was young. All of these sellouts. And then as you get older, you realize why the world is the way it is. And it’s not that it’s right, it’s not that it’s fair, but you start seeing the structures for what they really are.

And when you’re 18 to 22, and it’s not that you’re wrong, but there’s a certain amount of wisdom you still have to acquire and live that you get that comes with critical thinking. And again, when I think of critical thinking, I think when you learn that skill and those skills, that lifelong skill, it’s something that never ends.

James Lendvay: Yeah. And this ties to something else I was thinking about in terms of what we might call the democratization of knowledge. And I hate to hang this on the internet again, because this just sounds like, oh, we’re defaulting back to blaming the internet for everything. But I saw a brief quote from Larry Sanger, who I guess is co-founder of Wikipedia back in 2012. He said, I’ll quote, “These professionals are no longer needed for the bare purpose of the mass distribution and information and the shaping of opinion.” And what does he mean by needed? Okay. Is that a descriptive term where he’s saying, we’re just going to go ahead and rely on what we can find on the internet, or is that a more normative, prescriptive term where he’s saying we just need to get rid of professionals and so-called experts, because we can amass this information on the internet and everybody can get to it. And everybody can be an expert.

Bjorn Mercer: I would edit that statement that says, “Experts are no longer required.” They’re still needed in many different situations, but yeah, like Wikipedia, it’s a wonderful service that, “Experts aren’t always putting it together,” but experts are required in many other aspects. And with information literacy, well, part of information literacy rests on authority. Are people who have authority in contents and subjects required. Well, ideally, because then they’ve put in the time, they’ve put in potentially education or just, they have the wisdom that allows them to speak with authority. And, of course, one of the issues with the internet is anybody can start talking about an issue and they might sound persuasive, but they have no authority. And so it’s very difficult to figure out who can I trust if I don’t know who’s the authority in this matter.

James Lendvay: Sometimes I think of that as what we might call everyman punditry, where everybody’s an expert, just because you’re on air, that’s all it takes. And back to your point about kids thinking they know everything. I think that idea is even reinforced by this pseudo intellectualism out there. We see figures like, as I mentioned, Bill Maher, Joe Rogan, even somebody like I would say, Jordan Peterson, trained in psychology, but promoting philosophical views, opinions, I feel under the guise of doing this as a psychologist. But I think one thing that ties all of those kinds of figures together, not just this idea that they can be looked up to as models of people who don’t necessarily need a formal education, or an education in some particular area, is that they’re not associated with what I call the education industrial complex.

Now, of course, I found out that this was actually a term that’s been used before, but it’s this reverse snob appeal where you, 1% of the so-called educated are going to tell us the people what’s right and what’s wrong, even not morally, but just non morally as well. But look, we can do this. We have all these intellectuals on air with great ideas, and they’re leading a lot of people and swaying popular opinion. And who are these people? Often standup comedians. I’ve been saying for a long time that standup comedians are the new philosophers. That’s where people are going to get their ideas about culture and society. And they’re putting forth a lot of sometimes interesting arguments, sometimes not very interesting or very good, but they are now, those kinds of entertainers are at the center of what I would call public philosophical discourse.

Bjorn Mercer: I completely agree. And those people whom are on, on air or even dominate the internet, they’re charismatic, or interesting, or they’re combative. And so they get clicks versus if you have a disagreement between reasonable people, that’s not as exciting because then two people have a great conversation and they might disagree. And at the end of the day, they still smile and have a nice handshake. And so much of the media today is due to clicks and economics just making money that really reasonable and well thought out positions aren’t always possible. And so, absolutely wonderful conversation today, James, any final words?

James Lendvay: Well, yeah, I just, I think we touched on a lot of things, but one of my questions has been, if there’s a crisis, if there’s a growing sentiment against higher education or university education, I guess we could say, what can higher education do as a collective to counter that? And one thing you alluded to, focusing on reasonable arguments and I think that getting people to see that we can, part of the college experience is being in a place where we can have reasoned debate is itself a really important social function. Elon Musk recently with this whole, I’m going to buy it, but I’m not going to buy it Twitter escapade, talked about that he wanted Twitter to be a public square of sorts, but there’s a danger in social media when you have a unfettered, unregulated, unstructured place to just bicker.

And in a college format, if we’re doing it right, we can do that differently. We can do it in a way where people are respectful, where people are really actually listening to each other. Hopefully we can do that. And that alone could be a real benefit if we’re doing that in college courses and students can get that benefit from it.

Bjorn Mercer: So absolutely wonderful conversation today, James. And today we were speaking with James Lendvay about the perceptions of higher education. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And thank you for listening.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music in his spare time.

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