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The false promise of education

January 14, 2010

Written by Sue_De_Nim

I was just eleven years old, and about to start my secondary school education when, in his 1996 speech on New Labor’s priorities, Tony Blair outlined them simply as “Education, Education, Education.” But after 19 years of studying, I beg to differ. I mean, what does an education really provide you with today? I can only speak for myself, of course, but having recently finished a Master’s degree in Political Science, I feel I am just about qualified (no pun intended) to speak on this.

Better opportunities from education?

“What have I ever persevered at? Bong hit competitions at 3am and being able to quote almost every Will Ferrell movie ever made, verbatim? The latter, interestingly, does not go down well at job interviews.”

Photo: Unique hazing at an international school (by keito)

The debt from my educational career is clearly one of the most obvious pointers that education may not be beneficial, or at least not to one’s bank balance. The £9,000 (US$14,600) student loan I have to pay back sits on my shoulders with all the comfort of an albatross. I’m sure this amount pales in comparison to US students’ debts, but it does show that the cost and worth of an education (as a service paid for) is worth considering.

The job market is another area in which the benefits of education are questionable. I recently applied, and was rejected, for a job at KFC. I was told that “…a few other applications have better matched our selection criteria on this occasion.” Presumably this means I didn’t come across as desperate enough. Or perhaps, with so many job seekers flooding the market, Colonel Sanders can now demand a minimum of a Doctorate in frying chicken to even be considered for the role.

Others argue that education gives you invaluable “transferable skills.” You know, the idea that your time management, analytical, and research skills can be handily transferred over to an industry of your choice. This may, in part, be accurate, but “transferable skills” is really just a euphemism for all skills. For example, knowing how to drive a Honda automatically means you can drive a Mazda; you don’t have to relearn the skill. One skill I am doomed to transfer from my pursuit of knowledge to my working life, however, is the acute awareness that I know nothing.

Again, in my currently unemployed (and, arguably, unemployable) state, that ultimate catch-22 situation of needing work experience to get a job seems to have reared its ugly head. It makes me wonder whether I should have left school at 16 like many of my cohorts. They seem so proud of themselves, you know? That sense of accomplishment, triumphing over the odds, the “self-made man.” What have I ever persevered at? Bong hit competitions at 3am and being able to quote almost every Will Ferrell movie ever made, verbatim? The latter, interestingly, does not go down well at job interviews. If I had started off in a company at 16, I could have been running the place by now. I am, of course, being ridiculously hyperbolic; my business acumen is almost as bad as my interview technique.

And I’m not saying anyone without a higher education is a philistine, either. Quite the opposite, in fact. I noted with interest, recently, a message on a friend’s Facebook wall. This friend, Ash, had finished her education at the high school level in her native Mauritius. She is by far the most well-read of all my friends, and had updated her status with a philosophical pondering. One of her more socially challenged friends had commented on this, writing something along the lines of “I have a degree in this and you have no idea what you are talking about.” Apart from being against general Facebook etiquette, his statement is inaccurate. One can argue about the existence of objective knowledge all day, but in fact Ash’s research and (more importantly) natural interest in this area meant she has a much more pure, and arguably stronger, understanding of the subject. This “friend” of hers has probably studied the subject alongside set rules and parameters, possibly even just reading those few core books on the reading list.

More recently, President Obama has also put an emphasis on the role of education in making peoples lives better. In fairness to him, he has made the distinction between education and its ends (rather than education purely for its own sake), highlighting the role of science and math skills in helping the struggling economy.

Back to my current misfortune in the employment market, and looking into a career in international politics: all I need is the small order of two years of experience within a political organization, and the ability to speak an additional language (two extra languages an advantage). Well, I only speak English. Because I’m British. And that is how we roll. Perhaps I’ll use the (transferable) skills I’ve gained from my educational career to join the private sector. I hear AIG is hiring. Maths, Science or Engineering degree needed, you say? Oh crap. Did someone mention a PhD?

  1. keito permalink*
    January 15, 2010 6:36 pm

    I agree that higher education is the way to go if you can do it, but what I took away from this article is that getting a masters or ph.D. should be considered more carefully than many (if not most) of us do. For example, being frustrated with the job opportunities available to me with only a Bachelors, I applied and was accepted to a good Masters program (which, of course, didn’t have enough financial aid to go around since so many people are hiding from the bad economy in grad school). I was all set to start grad school until something happened that made me reassess the cost, and I realized that if I had children in my early 30s, I wouldn’t be finished paying off my student loans till it was time for THEM to go to college!

    I think it’s important for everybody considering graduate school to remember that a graduate degree might not help you find a job in a bad economy, and besides that it prevents you from getting a lot of entry-level jobs if you get desperate. I had to laugh at the part about getting rejected from KFC because I know so many people who have had that same problem, with fast food chains and low-level office jobs! One friend, who had a masters in psychology and had been out of work so long she wasn’t certain she could pay her bills that month (including hefty loans), was told the prospective employer was impressed with her but felt it would be too costly to hire her and train her since she would just leave for a better job soon after (nevermind that she’d been searching for that for months).

    I realize now that in my field of interest, the cost is outweighed by potential income I’d get with a Masters, and I think this is true of many other fields (on the other hand, some fields practically require a Masters or better). So while a Masters is certainly more prestigious and typically leads to a higher income potential (emphasis on that), a certification program is actually more appropriate for me.

    Higher education is a great opportunity, but it’s only going to be valuable to you if it matches your actual goals. The trouble is, it’s very difficult for most of us to assess the price versus value, as the author encouraged. We can’t predict what the economy will be like when we graduate, for one thing, or how many jobs will be open in our field.

    I’d also like to add that if a Masters degree was more accessible to everyone price-wise, I think we’d all be having a different discussion entirely…!

  2. Julienne permalink
    January 20, 2010 4:40 pm

    I know that each person is unique, but I want to argue for the benefit of “life-long learning,” as I feel that an education is never a waste; regardless of its financial ends. Your education in Political Science might look less than helpful now, but, I assume, you grew through the experience. In my opinion, that can never be a waste.

    I do agree with Keito about the idea of a cost-benefit analysis for higher education. Personally, I’m unsure of what I’ll be when I grow up; i.e: post-Master’s. However, I know now that I’m enjoying my program, learning new things, and so I’ve decided to sort the rest out when it comes. Let tomorrow take care of itself and all that…

    At any rate: welcome aboard, Sue_De_Nim. We’re always glad to welcome a new member to the TT team!

    P.S.: You know I love how the British “roll.”
    P.P.S.: I’m mildly embarrassed that KFC has added itself to the list of American exports. 😉

  3. Sue_De_Nim permalink
    January 20, 2010 7:20 pm

    Yes I agree. I mean, I think it’s easy to sit in a (relatively) privileged position having benefited from education in ways that perhaps are not apparent right now, and diminish ones own academic achievements as well as focus on the lack of opportunities. But I think it’s equally easy to forget how hard it is to find work once you are in employment. I have actually got a job now so I’m sure the latter will be me from next week! But I would still think twice before encouraging young people to follow education through to the highest stage unquestionably, however.

    ‘Lifelong learning’ and studying at the ‘University of Life’ (what are the tuition fees like there, by the way?) are most probably the best way forward, and I would definitely like to enjoy learning new things for the experience as opposed to simply for their ends from now on.

    Indeed Julienne – KFC, and currently Stephen Baldwin on ‘Celebrity Big Brother’; all the greats!

    Anyways thanks for the comments!

  4. Julienne permalink
    January 21, 2010 11:31 am

    It might be interesting to hear the opinion of someone who was pressured into a course of study from family or society. Their opinion on studying for the sake of studying might be different. Maybe they would be pro-educational programs that will almost guarentee a job after university; engineering, for instance. Or maybe they would revolt against their choice & suggest people study what would make them happy – regardless of the ends.

    Have you seen the Facebook group called, “I picked a Major I liked, and One Day I will Probably be Living in a Box”? Link here:

    Conversely, the “I Chose a Major I Didn’t Like so I Could Live in a Mansion”:


  5. Julienne permalink
    January 21, 2010 11:34 am

    (The Baldwins, themselves, need to be locked in a box.)

  6. Julienne permalink
    January 23, 2010 12:47 am

    How unfortunate that I just noticed my other post is not up there! I even posted links to the group on Facebook called, “I picked a major I liked so I’ll one day be living in a box.”

  7. Sue_De_Nim permalink
    January 24, 2010 3:08 pm

    Ha ha!! At least you’ll be in good company in the box? I am actually in love with Stephen Baldwin now. I couldn’t stop myself. It MAY be the American swagger he has. It may just be his shockingly good looks combined with his ability to paraphrase the bible at random points in a conversation.

  8. Julienne permalink
    January 25, 2010 12:05 am

    In love with a Baldwin? I can’t even believe I’m hearing this. LOL

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