Friday, April 3, 2015

Education as a leap of faith

[I've been sitting on this for over a month. Just as I was going to post it I got sidetracked by grotesque political idiocies. It's curiously relevant to those idiocies, inasmuch as it touches on what I believe is one of the drivers of the far right's sometimes irrational outlook.]

I liked Edwin Lyngar's tale centered on his struggle to overcome poverty for himself and his family. He credits higher education not only for giving him a chance at a new career, but also for helping to change some of his fundamental conservative beliefs.

This is obviously a tale that will warm the heart of any liberal. Indeed, it's so satisfying to liberals that a couple of reminders seem in order: conservatives can point to their own stories of repentant former liberals, and media outlets on all sides have every interest in hyping "conversion" stories. So even though I like his thinking, I'm mindful that it could be a little too good to be true.

I'm not a Tea Partier but this sounds (or, as Stephen Colbert the character would have said, "feels") about right to me:

The Tea Party thrives on blue-collar “common sense” that is composed of a combination of ignorance, superstition and fear. A literate and educated populace is an existential threat to the kind of thoughtless rage that has consumed the right over the past few years.
This has certainly proven to be the case elsewhere in the world. For instance, Islamic fundamentalists consider people like Malala Yousafzai, the teenaged Pakistani advocate for girls' education, a mortal enemy. Given the barren and savage worldview promulgated by fundamentalist Islam, it's easy to see that it can only thrive where life is hard and people don't see alternatives. Education gives people alternatives.

Lyngar makes a more contentious assertion:

... there is inherent value to education even if someone isn’t paying you for it. I know my life would be less satisfying without it.
(By the way, Lyngar mixes and matches "education" with "higher education" or "college". I've tried to distinguish between them when necessary. It's also worth noting that some of these same arguments have percolated down to the K-12 level: witness the heightened profile of fundamentalist Christians home-schooling their children.)

It's one thing to say your own life has benefited from education. It's another thing to say that education has an inherent value for everyone. The value of education generally can only be gauged by your own experience with it. That is, you need to get an education to know what it's worth.

You know what else can't be judged without embracing it first? Religious faith. All the testimonials in the world, even from your nearest and dearest, really can't make the case. You have to experience it for yourself. Or, as I think of it, you have to want to embrace it.

I think that's why education at all levels has such a high hurdle to overcome in this country. As someone raised outside of any faith, I've resisted anything that smacks of religious indoctrination with a surprising fervor. Religion may be a source of comfort for billions (I'm well aware of how much of an outlier I am, lacking even a nominal upbringing in any faith), but all I can see is that it would be a colossal waste of my time and energy. I've never needed it.

Or so I believe. I've experienced bouts of depression and I've learned not to ask myself the question, "Why am I here?" For a lot of people, that would be reason enough to look for something larger in which to believe. A lot of people would say it's borderline insane not to seek spiritual comfort to alleviate what sounds like an intolerable emptiness. But for me, the drawbacks outweigh any imaginable benefits. And honestly, embracing a religious faith at this point would feel like a defeat. I'm on a quest to prove that one can live not only a moral life, but a satisfying one as well, without resorting to religion.

I might feel the same way about higher education if I had managed to build a life without it. An educated person might see unnecessary hardships in that life, hardships that could have been avoided if I had embraced higher ed, but all I might see is that it would have been a colossal waste of my time and energy.

Lyngar illustrates how higher education was viewed by those around him as he was growing up:

I came from a rural mining town in Nevada where I knew mostly blue-collar men who neither needed nor wanted a college education. Listening to adults talk they always had a favorite villain: the person who jumped ahead in line and got a job or promotion, only because he or she had a college degree.
You'd think that the tangible economic benefits would have convinced the community that college was worth something. After all, economic benefit is the measure against which the value of nearly everything is judged these days. However, that clearly wasn't the case in Lyngar's hometown. This suggests that there's a moral component to their conviction.

My hunch is that the economic benefits of higher education are tainted by the sins that are perceived to accompany it: elitism, indifference to "family values", anti-Americanism, etc. In their eyes, the price of higher education is nothing less than one's soul.

This sentiment is visceral, beyond the reach of objective analysis. That being the case, merely preaching the virtues and value of education, particularly higher education, is a dead-end strategy for its advocates. While there will always be Lyngars who are susceptible to believing in it (and who probably would have felt the urge no matter what), they're the exception, not the rule. Just as you can't reach people's hearts if you coerce them into adopting a faith (as ISIS is trying to do right now), you can't reach people's hearts if you shove education down their throats.

I'd never thought of education as requiring a leap of faith. That's what it might take, though.

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