Monday, August 25, 2008

of what use are utility arguments in education?

And how to avoid the utility monster? I find myself struggling with this idea. On the one hand, I myself took all sorts of (non-required, non-skill building) courses for reasons of personal interest/growth/excessive belief in a broad liberal education: creative writing, Latin, literary theory, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, etc. etc. etc. etc. On the other hand, as my nephew is entering his senior year of high school and preparing for college, I am wondering if he would do well to follow my path. I did quite well in college, but I would describe my education as "useful" in the sense that it trained my mind, not because it produced any research that benefited humanity or gave me a skill set that is useful today. But I liked learning subjects because they were there and I was interested, and was not much concerned with utility back then (ironically, that's all that drives my choice of courses now).

The boy, whom I love, is quite a bit less intellectually curious than I am (I say this benevolently) and might benefit from a strictly utilitarian approach. He wants to be some sort of engineer/dentist/whatever? Just take the required courses and the path of least resistance! Just make sure your GPA is high! If you are not interested in learning for learning's sake, then there seems little point in counseling you to take something "because it'll broaden your mind and make you think more critically." He doesn't seem interested in that, in the humanities, in the idea of learning for its own sake. So maybe I shouldn't push him to do that. Maybe that approach doesn't work for everyone. It worked for me, because I am that type of person, and because the skills required for what I do are critical thinking and writing, and there's no harm in "wasting my time" in courses that don't offer a direct benefit. But this is not for everyone, and not even all academics. So maybe he should just take the prereqs and whatever he wants, and not what is "good" for him.

And on the third hand, that feels like giving up on the nephew. I helped raise him, and I'm the closest he has to an adult adviser to whom he confides everything. It's a tremendous responsibility, and already I feel like I'm failing him. Good thing I don't have my own kids yet. Of course, he'll be an adult by next year, and it's not like I have any say over his life or what he should do with it. But he does look to me for advice and considers me a role model. I am just not sure what I would advise him (what made me happy may not make him happy; what worked for me may not work for him) and I am not sure I am the best role model for him. But just saying that out loud makes me feel like I just up and called my nephew a philistine, and am saying that those without intellectual curiosity should not have it demanded of them, and that this impulse is not something to be fostered, nurtured, encouraged. Like I said, it feels like giving up on the boy, when in fact it may just be giving up on vicariously living through your children. Maybe if all parents and adult authority figures gave up on the impulse to mold the next generation, we wouldn't have so many scary stage parents and unhappy kids pushed into career paths and re-treading their parents' well-worn paths.

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