Lately, my facebook feed has been stacked with friends’ and acquaintances’ reposts of news articles talking about the most-profitable undergraduate majors. Typically, the people posting these articles tend to be in one of the top 10 “employable” majors – pure coincidence! Other articles I have come across speak about the “higher education bubble” – a conjecture that essentially, the commodity of an undergraduate education is being devalued by the disproportionately high number of people holding or pursuing such a thing. Whether or not this is true is another discussion for another day. What really concerns me is that when we sprint through our degrees with dollar-signs in our eyes, I’m quite sure that we’re missing the point.
I am certainly prepared to accept that for social organization to work, we each need to have something to offer to society in order to rightfully receive something in return. As adults, we can no longer seek out high-school guidance counsellors to hold our hands and tell us exactly what to do next – university is a place of intense freedom, where we must make rational decisions based on our aspirations and goals. We need to take ownership of our education, by ensuring that the courses we take and the experiences that we have will give us more to contribute to the aspects of society to which we wish to belong. My friend with a passion for sociology eventually realized that in order to make meaning out of his education, he’d have to overcome his fear of statistics. Having skills in mathematics, economics, and expository writing have certainly never hurt anyone in their post-degree job search.
All of these things said, it makes me nervous to see first (or second, or third…) year students registering only for courses in a specific field because they view it as the de facto means to meaningful employment. Even as someone who lives in the lab and the library, it is disappointing to see friends (or to look back upon my earlier self) refusing to get involved on campus because it doesn’t count for marks, or racing through courses in a mad dash toward efficient memorization, without taking a moment to place what has been learned in the context of the world. After all, what is the point in learning something if it isn’t made meaningful and relevant in some way? Furthermore, are not the ways in which our educations fundamentally change us what makes us truly valuable both to employers, as well as one another?
The value of learning is often hidden in unexpected places. In my massive Convocation Hall-sized first-year ecology course, I discovered an appreciation for the intricate, deliberate beauty of nature that has since brought me to tears at the peripheries of forests. In a positive psychology course, I built a meditation practice that has pervaded through my conscious existence and changed the angle at which I look at my own thoughts in the 16 months that I’ve maintained it. Learning a second language allowed me to abstract my thinking away from words. Mathematics and logic gave me the powerful tool of formalization and argumentation in distantly related fields.
In my early years at U of T, I could never have predicted the things that awaited me here. I just had to put my faith in the pursuit of knowledge and the value of trying to expand my world into the sometimes dark corners of cultures and equations and philosophies that I might at first have been quick to judge and slow to understand. As we march through the last month of first semester, I encourage you to ask yourself what, from each course, you might be able to carry forward with you. If you weren’t preparing for the MCAT, or trying to make Dean’s List, what have you learned that can change the way you live your life? Which hidden worlds has your education opened up to you?
I imagine myself, this year or years from now, being perhaps interviewed by a grad school admissions committee, or a research group, or simply being in discussion with some fascinating person I’ve happened to meet as a result of circumstance. In these moments, the things I’ve memorized fall away, but the things I’ve truly learned will shape the way these people and I know each other and make decisions and interact with the world. In fact, these things have already begun to emerge in my life faster and more intensely than before, and this isn’t a “bubble” that can burst and fade away. There are dimensions of ethics to love and food. There are subtleties in ways of living that I didn’t know existed. So I guess, our time here gives us a chance to decide what our values are, and how to live deliberately. To know this is perhaps the finish line we might best cast our eyes toward. To those of us still too fresh to this place to find that, my advice is simple: try new things and ask yourself what they mean. We’ll never have more time and opportunity for it than now.