Tuesday, January 25, 2011

there are a lot more skeletons in the great closet of humanity than you'd think

So I should know better than to read comment threads on Stuff.co.nz; they only make me angry. I read a few of the comments on today's article about Phil Goff's plan for tax should Labour win the next election, and honestly a few was enough.

Because every single one of these threads ends up in a cagefight about interest-free student loans and omg how totally unhelpful and useless history degrees are. And everybody talks very earnestly about how hard they work (and I have no reason to doubt that) and how it's unfair that they have to pay as much tax as they do and/or pay so much child support and/or don't receive enough child support (children: they cost money). But then! Interest-free student loans and history degrees rear their ugly head. Again.

Universities are, of course, meant to be bastions of learning, stalwart defenders of truth against all the forces that want to suppress it.

This is, of course, largely bullshit.

Universities are not about truth. They're not (in my humanities-driven experience) about questioning whether things are true at all. If they were, there wouldn't be 2 departments in one faculty, one of which teaches that people are ultimately rational and will act reliably in their own self-interest and one of which teaches how to get people to buy the things you make even when what you're producing is crappy. Independent thought isn't nearly as encouraged or as valued as everyone pretends.

And maybe that's okay.

And I digress.

Universities have always taught humanities subjects. For a very long time, history meant ancient history: Latin, Greek, the Roman empire. People went to university for much the reason they do now: to spend a few years becoming even more educated after finishing school. Sons of particular social strata went almost by default, unless they showed especial interest in another career or were especially dim. The rest of us didn't go at all.

For most of humanity, literacy didn't exist as there was no written language. I don't doubt that people learnt a lot of skills anyway.

For most of the time that there has been written language, most of humanity - almost all of humanity - has been illiterate. The real change in accessibility to written language, and therefore to information that wasn't known by anyone you knew in person, was the printing press (at least in Western Europe. My rest-of-the-world history is very shaky). Even so, it took the Enlightenment and a bunch of other shit happening before educating the poor became popular. Sometime after that, governments started legislating for free compulsory primary school education.

Most people still left school at ages we would now consider Far Too Young. They still went out and got jobs and were fully productive members of society. This is because, actually, for most jobs an education past 14 or so was kind of... useless. There are very few things you need to know calculus for. Or geometry, or Latin. People went into apprenticeships if they were going into a trade, or they got a job as a shop assistant or a clerk or anything else you can imagine. Society continued to flourish.

And it got richer, and suddenly levels of education that were barely imaginable a generation ago were open to most citizens of the wealthier nations. So people went to university, and they got history degrees.

And as degrees became less and less about proof that you came from the right sort of family, they became less and less of value on a CV. Because it has always been true that an Arts degree is not of a lot of practical value in day-to-day employment for most of the people who have them. ALWAYS.

Does this mean that the state should stop subsidising education in subjects it doesn't see as having practical value? Or, conversely, does that mean it should do a better job at subsiding skillsets it does see as having a lot of practical value (I'm thinking of the trades here)?

And does the lack of obvious correlation between the education you receive at university and the job you do now mean that your education has no value? I work in administration, and the critical analysis skills I learnt in Philosophy papers have proved to be very useful in my job, even though I can't explain how and Philosophy is, like, the go-to Department of Uselessness whenever people want to get their rant on (along with Art History).

1. If people have a right as such to an education, to what extent should a state fund it so that it is realistically accessible?
2. Does it depend on the content of that education? How do you know in advance what will be useful? Does it depend on who's making the judgement (at a societal level, or at an individual level)?
3. If the behaviours of a group of people will be predictable over time, should we be studying that in order to avoid the certain unwanted and predictable consequences of certain actions? (In other words: should we not be studying the mistakes of history?)

And a little more provocative--
4. Do people have a right as such to an education? What form does it take, and what is its scope?
5. What makes some forms of knowledge more useful than others? What's a working definition of "useful"? (Art is a social good.)

And finally--
7. History is written by the victors. What would happen if nobody read what they wrote?

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