Last updated on March 26th, 2019 at 09:04 pm

In recent years, postsecondary education has come under the watchful gaze of governments and public bodies looking to ensure that the end product of the dozens of years people spend in schools are graduates capable of finding meaningful jobs in whatever field of study they’ve pursued. Peeking into the windows of the ivory tower makes a kind of pragmatic sense, especially to those with an eye to the labour market, because it’s not an automatic that a student’s field of specialization will line up with the jobs that are available. Students are graduating in huge numbers with liberal arts degrees and no place to use them. It’s logical to want to make sure that young adults have an education geared towards the jobs that are actually waiting in the world, because this isn’t something that the postsecondary education system does.

The liberal arts degree is, in a way, completely inimical to our current social structure, having been conceived of during the middle ages, and assuming as it does that the student is a poncey aristocrat whose sole need for education is to display a knowledge of “culture” grand enough in scope to imply the possession of an enormous level of wealth without actually having to take the party guests down to the vaults to count the gold, because that would be gauche. The poncey aristocrats might largely be gone from our world, but the model of education that served them persists.

This is what trouble in humanities programs often comes down to—that in a culture bent very much on material advancement, the humanities struggle to justify their place in the market. Universities and colleges are slow-moving beasts, and the “point” of a degree in the arts or humanities hasn’t evolved at the pace our culture has. Chances are, it’s been a while since you saw a “Historian Wanted” ad, or a job posting looking for a “Philosopher,” but degrees in those subjects are standard. The trend in postsecondary education recently has been towards proving the relevance of programs and degrees by emphasizing their use value (that learning about culture doesn’t just make you great at Jeopardy, but provides real world knowledge and skill sets).

As proof of that use value, courses by and large will feature some kind of learning objectives, or learning outcomes. These are built into a course outline or schedule, and will most often describe what the student will know and be able to do by the end of the course. It’s in some ways a convenient arrangement. Students can figure out what’s going to be expected of them, and instructors can build their courses around what they want their students to walk away with.

But there’s something inherently troubling about the suggestion that a successful education is one that can be measured in predetermined outcomes. The rhetoric of outcome-based education assumes that knowledge is a closed system: that x + y + z = education. Tick the boxes, and you become “educated.” The system is closed, and it’s also finite.

Outcome-based education explains to students that learning should be functional, but it implies that nonfunctional learning is of less value. Since learning objectives are often linked to specific assignments, they also suggest that the purpose of learning is assessment, i.e. the final grade, and not the experience of learning itself. Understanding content is no longer enough to count as an education. It’s the application of knowledge that counts, and increasingly, the application seems to be more important than the content being applied. Learning for the sake of learning has been replaced by a utilitarian ethos, an ethos underscored by the insistence that educational programs are themselves useful (i.e. they will help students get a job on graduation). Usefulness, in this sense, risks fostering self-centredness, which is ultimately pretty counterproductive to learning, because students are encouraged to think about what knowledge can do for them, and not how they can apply their own curiosity to knowledge.

Nowadays, taking 20 courses in religious studies with no real goal in mind—taking them just to learn—sounds incredibly fanciful and privileged. Probably because it’s incredibly privileged to be able to take the time and energy to just sit down and learn. Expanding the mind is a luxury, but it’s also the only way to glimpse perspectives other than our own, to recognize how vast the world is and how much there is to know; in short, to get beyond our selves. If we want young adults to get an education worth having, it’s worth thinking about what the objective of learning actually is.

Read another perspective on the role of education in IMAGINATION VS. AUTOMATION: Is school really the best education for our children?>>

image: Muffet (Creative Commons BY)

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