My parents have been married for more than 40 years at this point. Throughout the 35 years of that marriage that I’ve been around for, my mom has been fond of reminding me why she was so keen on getting an education after she finished high school: so that if she stayed married it was because she actually wanted to, not because she was economically trapped in marriage by a higher-earning partner.
By and large, college is indeed an extremely wise financial investment for the individual. According to a comprehensive report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, a bachelor’s degree is worth $2.8 million, on average, over a lifetime.
The degree my mom got from the University of Minnesota wasn’t a bachelor’s, but she did fine during her long and successful career as a dental hygienist in small town America. She definitely met her goal of being financially self-sustaining (and apparently never felt the need to leave my dad, thankfully, despite being able to outperform him financially).
But sometimes I think the intangible value of education to our society as a whole gets overshadowed by the material results for individuals. Even though it wasn’t a four-year program like it is today, the dental hygiene program at the University of Minnesota was no place for academic slouches in the 1970s. Year after year as a child, I’d travel to the U of M for follow ups to my congenital cataracts eye surgery, and once we arrived on campus my mom would tell stories about her gross anatomy lab when she was a student there many years prior.
If you don’t know what a gross anatomy lab is, well, put down your drink if you’re having a coffee or something. That’s a class where you dissect human bodies (ones that their former occupants were kind enough to donate to science).
Why does a dental hygienist need to know how to dissect an entire human body? Well, some would argue she doesn’t. I don’t know that those folks would want someone poking around in their face with a sharp metal instrument without knowing exactly where all the arteries were, but maybe that argument carries a little more weight when we get below chest level.
But forget about a dental hygienist, there are a lot of things to learn about human biology that are useful in making a good citizen out of anyone, anywhere. Like, you know, that vaccines work. Or that wearing a mask helps keep respiratory viruses out of your face-holes.
There is a reason that about two-thirds of whites without a college degree voted for Donald Trump in 2016, while only 38 percent of whites with a four-year college degree voted for Trump. Uneducated people are generally not as good as educated people at determining when they are being lied to, because they are not as good at distinguishing between the credibility of different sources. There is a reason why so many uneducated people are still sticking with Trump in 2020, despite the fact that his pandemic nonresponse needlessly cost hundreds of thousands of lives and his only major policy accomplishment was a tax bill that harmed them to give away money to obscenely rich people. These folks do not (yet!) have the wherewithal to determine that the Fox News pundits screaming lies at them all day are not actually on their side and are not equivalent sources to the thousands of whiny liberal scientists, economists, and frazzled Above the Law columnists gently urging self-beneficial corrections to their worldview.
People (bad ones) make fun of baristas with college degrees, but every good citizen should have enough of a post-secondary education to vote competently, to determine fact from fiction to some meaningful degree. It doesn’t matter how tangential that education may be to how an individual ultimately earns a living. There’s dignity and intrinsic value in any kind of real, legitimate education, just like there is dignity and intrinsic value in any kind of real, legitimate work. In a more utopian American — maybe one where absolutely everyone could get at least two years of education after high school without going into debt — perhaps that would be self-evident.
My mom has a Joe Biden sign in her front lawn in a small town awash with Trump-flag-waving quarterwits because, unlike many of her peers, she learned how to think critically. I’m not going to totally credit a gross anatomy lab for that. But it sure didn’t hurt.
Jonathan Wolf is a litigation associate at a midsize, full-service Minnesota firm. He also teaches as an adjunct writing professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, has written for a wide variety of publications, and makes it both his business and his pleasure to be financially and scientifically literate. Any views he expresses are probably pure gold, but are nonetheless solely his own and should not be attributed to any organization with which he is affiliated. He wouldn’t want to share the credit anyway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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