On Over-Education, or The Economics of Thought

To round out this initial series of introductory posts, I want to write a bit about education, or rather, over-education.

Education in the U.S. is a tangled and highly politicized topic, and one that I hope to tackle in later posts. Right now though, I want to focus on the individual’s relationship to education – specifically higher education and the pursuit of advanced degrees – and because I’m the individual that I know best, I’m going to look at this through a fairly personal lens.

As a caveat, I just want to state that I realize that I’m coming at this from a fairly privileged place.

I have two advanced degrees, neither of which has led to my chosen career. Master’s degrees are costly, and mine are no different. The price is paid in time and effort, in the wobbling balance between work and life, and in money – never forget money.

I chose to pay these costs, not once but twice, and I take responsibility for those choices. But given the costs that I chose to pay, I would have expected the lack of concrete returns to distress me. And there are days when it does – deeply.

It would have been nice to see a career rise directly out of the educational foundation I laid. After all, the age of the gentleman scholar is over, and though I am no gentleman, I have scholarly predilections and a fair amount of training in that regard, which is why I can’t fully commit to bitterness at the lack of tangible returns. Although I’m distressed by the broken promise, economically speaking, of higher education, I did not come away from these degrees empty handed. Far from it.

In exchange for my time and money, I acquired the ability to analyze and critique, to research, to write critically, to communicate clearly, to document and to argue a point. I strengthened my natural tendency to wonder and find out. In short, I learned to think for myself, because while I was deciding that Derrida was a fraud and post-modernism a house of cards, while I was learning that cataloguing and classification have become ironically complicated, given their original purpose was to simplify the storage of knowledge, I was exercising the muscle of analytical dispassion. There is an intense amount of value in that, though the cost is high.

Would I have chosen to undertake two advanced degrees had I known that the gains would be of the intangible, personal sort? No. I would not. But I’m grateful that I did. My degrees haven’t yielded conventional goods, but they have brought me to a better, more thoughtful self. It’s a luxury I didn’t intend, but one I’m lucky to have had.

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2 thoughts on “On Over-Education, or The Economics of Thought

  1. I had a similar experience, pouring myself into the stereotypically useless Philosophy route. But, I also do not regret it. I honed my thinking razor because of it, and that had made me a better writer. But, just like you, if I could go back, I would have changed things (IE, doing an MFA in writing wouldn’t have hurt).
    Daniel

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences, Daniel. I suspect that there are a lot of us out there – the over-educated holders of degrees in philosophy or English or the classics or comparative religion. But what you said about honing your thinking skills is spot on – academic rigor, whether it results in a career or not, develops some seriously useful skills, like critical thinking, and the ability to express those thoughts clearly. It also seems like a lot of us become writers.. wonder if that’s a coincidence? 😉

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