Has your education been worth it? What, in the end, has school taught you?

Steven sent me a link from SoulPancake, asking the aforementioned questions.  Here’s an introduction from the webpage:

Here at SoulPancake, we count lots of academic types among us: we’ve got your honors student grade grubbers, we’ve got creative arty types, we’ve got your stoners in the parking lot, we’ve got misunderstood geniuses, dropouts and doctorates. One thing we don’t have is a dummy among us (save your ventriloquist jokes for later). So what’s the value of education if, really, anyone can get to the same place regardless of educational background? Or are we just special? (save the bus jokes, too).

What did you get out of school? What would you be doing if you weren’t in school right now? Seriously, summer is almost upon us, so for one last serious moment this year, let’s give a thought about our educations and what they have been worth (or will be worth) to our lives.

This is a question Steven and I have been batting around for years.  Was our university education worth it?  Actually, here’s the question within the question: was the education that we received from our respective state universities worth the cost of now being (combined, approximately, presently) about $45,000 in debt?

It’s a question a lot of U.S. university graduates are asking themselves these days.  We were bottle- then spoon-fed this idea – this dream – that if we worked hard enough, we would be fortunate enough to attend college.  My dream also had the shiny varnish of the promise that if I was a high school valedictorian, my college experience would be cheap-to-free.  The dream continues that we would have this amazing, sparkly, life-changing experience while in college that would result in the sure placement into a lifelong career that was fulfilling and rewarding.  Or, at the very least, would allow us to follow the ultimate dream: The American Dream.  Which is just about anything you want it to be, whether it’s the clapboard and white picket fence and 2.5 kids and doting spouse, or the pursuit of the wild-west adventure.  The search for something more, and the know-how to find it.

Obviously, that’s not what most of us got – at least, not most of my friends who happen to hold a hodge-podge of LAS and Human Services degrees.  Most of us got out just before or just after the economic crisis in the U.S., which means we either got lucky and landed ourselves a job that just barely covered rent, food, and the loans that came sneaking up all-to-quickly… or we moved home and started applying for AmeriCorps, PeaceCorps, and Teach for America.  Or started working at coffee shops and retail giants, waiting for that dream job to find us on aisle 3.  But regardless of where we ended up, the loans surely tracked us down.

Oh, the loans.  Oh!  Nobody explained them to me very well.  They were sugar coated and kira-kira’d, tiny chain-saws coated in a sweet lie: it’s not too much money!  you need it to go to college!  you’ll get a job to pay them off when it’s all over!  that’s the best interest rate you’re going to get in the state of Iowa! don’t think too much about this, just sign here!

Those loans – those loans!  I recently wondered if college were cheaper, if we didn’t have to pay so much to receive the degree, if the U.S. would be in a better spot economically.  If the millions of us who are scraping by trying to find a job to pay off our four years of lessons on critical thinking and test-taking and group-project stressing and MLA style paper writing could instead just use that money to buy STUFF or INVEST, and use our time to THINK and WRITE and DEBATE and CHANGE THE WORLD like we were taught how to do, wouldn’t we be in a better position, all of us?  Our young, educated minds are getting soggy and sloppy as we bag your groceries and make your coffee.  Our peers from high school who didn’t go to college seem to be in a much better position than we are now – they have jobs that pay what we thought we’d be getting paid; they have houses! they have lives! they go on trips! and they aren’t smothered by debt.

So, the question remains – was it worth it?  What did I learn?

Here’s what I learned:  I learned to think for myself.  I learned to shed old ways of thinking and reasoning for better ones, even at the cost of losing the support of friends and relatives on occasion.  I learned to stand up for myself and the things I believe in, and I learned to sacrifice temporary comfort in exchange for permanent things you can’t put a price on: friendship, loyalty, honesty, integrity, respect, courage, community, health, our globe, human rights.  I learned that you can’t make everyone happy, but if you feel okay with yourself at the end of the day, you probably did the right thing.  I learned that, on occasion, hard work isn’t always as important as a sliver of charm and charisma.  I learned that, more often than not, kindness is more important than being right.  I learned that, always, a strong argument and verve are just as good as being on the winning side of a debate.  I learned painfully that just because you believe something doesn’t make it right, and just because you don’t mean to hurt someone doesn’t mean it won’t happen anyway.  I learned that, about a lot of things, I was wrong.

Specifically, I learned how to accurately define values that are important to me, and I learned how to defend and protect them.  I learned to analyze situations and how to read people, when to press and when to pause.  I learned that people who insist on defining themselves with their words are often making up for the fact that their actions aren’t meeting their expectations.

Educationally, I learned about the great philosophers and their theories.  I figured out who I liked and who I didn’t.  I learned about comparative politics and political theory and political practice.  I took a lot of classes that didn’t teach me anything, or at least anything I can remember.  I had to take many classes that I didn’t want to and still don’t think were necessary, and I had to take a few classes that I wouldn’t have wanted to but now I’m glad that I did.

Experientially, I saw the world and met people from different cultures and backgrounds and histories.  I learned to appreciate difference over similarities.  I found comfort and peace in places many Americans are afraid to travel, and I discovered richness in places most would consider deprived.  I realized that, when it comes down to it, I’d rather spend my time serving than gaining, protecting the defenseless, and fighting with those that have for those that don’t.

I saw that a family of twelve can live in a one-room house, but they have more  between them than families who have many houses but can’t find the time to visit each other or make an effort for each other.  I learned about familial loyalty.

I saw that someone can live in another culture for a decade and still harbor racism and snobbery.  I found that I can live in a culture for a week and mold myself to new expectations and rules.

Could I have learned and experienced these things any other way?  I believe I could have… but it’s not a sure thing, and it could have taken much longer.  Is it worth the cost of the loans we’ve accrued?  My answer is simply that the life lessons that I learned and the experiences that I gathered are priceless; I don’t believe my education should have cost as much as it did, but it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have gone to college.  Would I do things differently if I could – absolutely yes.  Do I regret my college experience?  In many ways, yes.  Do I think I paid too much for my education?  Academically, yes.

And yet, after all of that, would I say it’s worth it?  I am who I am today because of my experiences, and four years of it were molded by my time at my university.  So, am I happy with the person I am today?  The answer is that I like who I am and how I do things now because of things I did learn there, so in short: yes.

But I do resent my university – and basically all universities – for allowing us to be in this much debt.  There must be a better way.

And yet, here I have begun to consider going back to grad school.  I wonder if I am a fool.