Waste of a good education?

Or perhaps I should have titled it “Waste of a few good years?”. I’m not saying it is, hence the question mark, but I do wonder.

I suppose when you boil it down it comes down to the question of whether a good education is, in itself, worth the extra years you spend “in the wilderness” (from a work/life viewpoint)? If you are blessed with extremely solid family finances or a ‘family firm’, i.e. no real need for you to work for a living, then fine, enjoy yourself. If you intend to go on and teach the subject you’re studying, then obviously the higher education the better. Those two points, however, probably only apply to considerably less than 1% of people entering higher education. The remainder, in my mind, are probably only doing it because either; they think a higher education will give them an advantage over others competing for jobs or because of peer/family pressure. Given that I don’t consider peer/family pressure a good reason to do anything you don’t yourself want to and given that I don’t believe having a master’s degree does give you much of an advantage in the job market (because everybody’s got one), I have to wonder whether it is therefore just a waste of what should be some of your most productive and useful years in the outside world? Or is being well educated something people want to do here, just for the hell of it?

From the viewpoint of this particular employer, I’d far rather see a candidate who has a matura, 5 years relevant work experience and is making his/her own way in life than one who has a totally irrelevant master’s degree (most of them are), zero work experience beyond making the coffee in their uncle’s firm and who is still having his/her mum do the laundry. But then I’m sometimes a bit of a philistine when it comes to matters of higher education, so perhaps I’m missing the point? For me, the years you spend getting it should have a payback that goes beyond being able to make educated comments on a blog post, or whatever, and in the final analysis, when you look back over your life, allow you to honestly say that getting that master’s or doctorate was the very best use of those 3-6 years of your life and not just something you drifted into because you couldn’t think of anything better to do. I’m just concerned that a high percentage of people in Poland (and elsewhere) will not be able to say that. Perhaps it doesn’t worry them as much as it would worry me?

As I see it, you have three options; leave school after the first exams when you’re 16 (O level equivalent?), leave after matura (slightly better than A level?), aged 19, or go on to get a higher education and leave when you’re what, mid 20’s? I’m not even sure if the first option is an option here in Poland. I’ve certainly never met anyone who did leave school at 16 and those exams are so little talked about (other than as a step towards the all-powerful matura) that I’m assuming they are about as useful in the big wide world as a certificate for 50m breaststroke. The matura seems to be by far the most important and as far as I can tell, is the watershed between someone being ‘educated’ and ‘uneducated’. This is quite different to the UK in my school days where ‘O’ levels, at age 16, were really the equivalent of the matura, in terms of defining ‘educated’. If you got yourself a set of reasonably good ‘O’ levels you were in a good position to decide whether to start work or to go on to ‘A’ levels, the rough equivalent of matura in terms of knowledge and tough exams, at age 18. After ‘A’ levels, in my opinion, there was more pressure to start work in the UK than there was to go on to university, unless the profession you had decided you liked was one that particularly demanded a higher education – medical, legal and other professions. Here in Poland, today, I suspect it is the other way around. More pressure to get a master’s degree than to go to work?

Poland must be right up there in terms of the number of people with a higher education. If nothing else, the depth of knowledge displayed in the comments we receive here on Polandian is a good indication of a relatively well educated country. Reading through the comments on the post below, it might be reasonable to assume that quite a few people chose history as their subject! Companies are attracted to Poland because of its strong supply of well educated people (and then give them jobs in call centres!). This is all well and good. No doubt in my mind that, generally speaking, one can have a far better class of educated theoretical debate here in Poland than you can in the UK, but I can’t help wondering if that comes at a cost. The cost being generations of Poles who live so long in the molly-coddled environments of home and university that they are not ready to make real progress in the “outside world” until they are staring their 30th birthday in the face. Quite a few years behind similar generations from other European countries.

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25 thoughts on “Waste of a good education?

  1. Hello scatts !

    Interesting comparison you’ve made. However the way you consider education may be a bit reducing : I don’t think the only aim of studies is to provide people with a better job, it should also give you some general culture, a certain critical sense and other keys to be an “enlighten” citizen, aware of its rights and duties in the society.

    Starting this point, a voluntarist policy in favour of education may cancel the advantage of having a Master’s degree in your professional life, as most of people are expected to get one, but the fact is if you don’t, you have a serious handicap compared to the others. Does the solution lay in a radical cut in high education access ? I don’t believe so, for the reasons mentioned earlier. Communism was said to work only with educated people, we may have forgotten this also applies to democracy.

  2. Agreed, Romain, although I’d like to hear some views on how many years are felt necessary to “….also give you some general culture, a certain critical sense and other keys to be an “enlighten” citizen, aware of its rights and duties in the society.”. Is this not a never ending process and is it not greatly helped by “getting out there” rather than remaining in educational institutions?

    Or is it that people can’t be trusted to enlighten themselves without the discipline of a formal eduction?

  3. Education is never wasted. Education is not only for making money, asap.

    Even if you work in a pub or in a call center you are still an educated person and i am sure that i would like to spend more time with you than with Paris Hilton or some “turbo educated” yuppies from canary wharf who can only talk about their high payed job, because their brains are so empty…

  4. Scatts,

    but have you considered all those males who had to go to universities to hide from the press gangstas? Or people seeing no job vacancies while they get matura’ed — so taking their studies to stay in wait until job markets grow nicer? Or people who want to have a beer or two (or as many as your scholarship can buy you) and postpone either rat races – or generally adult life (sex excluded) for later?

    You’d be surprised if you were to draw some definitions: educated vs intellectual / high brow — or bookwise vs streetwise. Adding some diachronic approach. (I remember my grandfolks knowing Latin and some Greek as they were the old-type gymnasium / secondary schoolsters.) And if you think Polish numbers (of the enrolled) mean anything, google out Raport o kapitale intelektualnym Polski.

    My ad hoc definition: one’s education is as good as one is capable of contributing to the forming of an economic empire. (One has to be collectively smart enough to outsmart the foreign competition.) Poland never scored that one.

  5. Scatts, I agree. Higher education is a waste of time and you end up paying for it for the rest of your life, at the expense of a decent standard of living.

    Actually, basic education is a bit of a waste of time too. It’s all about crowd control and learning how to interact in a group. After an initial spurt with reading and writing, I don’t think I learnt anything useful until the age of 15, when I learnt how to pass various kinds of exams. The actual information you regurgitate in the exam isn’t useful, it’s just the method that counts.

    The skills I use for the work I do at the moment involve languages, which can only be effectively taught by living abroad. My professional training lasted less than a year and was more a set of basic tools to be built on through experience. However it was very expensive and I have yet to see any worthwhile returns on my investment.

    Education – certainly in the British system – doesn’t teach you to think. If you go to a posh university, it teaches you to network with the right people. If you go to a bog-standard ex-poly, it teaches you to repeat what your lecturers tell you.

  6. It’s kinda sad to consider things only from a utilitarist point of view : culture or art may not help at all for a job, yet they can give people pleasure or food-for-thought …

    scatts, you’re right when you say it’s a never-ending process which can happen out of an education system. However, the difference is people from various social backgrounds are more likely to acquire a similar luggage inside university than in the “wilderness”. As imperfect as education systems are, they increase chances of social ascension in my opinion.

    As far as self-enlightment goes, do you know many guys who stopped school at 14 and who are now able to have a serious talk about UK politics (supposing he goes voting) ? I’m not saying either that every people who were in university can, but the proportion is higher.

  7. pinolona: “The skills I use for the work I do at the moment involve languages, which can only be effectively taught by living abroad.”

    Ah, so. So for years now my husband is earning his money in some totally skewed way, because he couldn’t have been effectively taught English – he never lived in English-speaking country! And abroad, overall, about maybe half a year…

    scatts: “Or is it that people can’t be trusted to enlighten themselves without the discipline of a formal eduction?”

    In short, “yes”? At least, most of them do. And it’s not really about “trusted”, either – one of the most important thing to learn at school (and in the university) is how to learn, how to seek informations, how to distinguish between main points and trivialities. And how not to invent wheel thousandth time.

  8. During my studies at a technical university, they taught me some twenty programming languages. I can still program in only four of them, optimistically speaking, so one can say I’ve forgotten 75% of what I was required to learn.

    When I was in highschool, it used to take me six months to learn a programming language. After five years of studying, I can do the same in three days. So every time I need to learn a new artificial language (which happens once in a year, more or less), my education saves six months of my time. I would never manage to learn twenty languages “just for practice”, if I had to focus on a full time job right after matura.

    I’ve never been abroad. But after having read all that (poorly written) documentation I needed for my studies, I no longer need a dictionary to look words up. I read twenty pages per hour, which I find adequate, although reading in Polish is still at least twice as efficient. This converts to hard currency every time my job forces me to read a manual. Or a novel. Or watch a movie. My occupation involves watching a lot of movies.

    They made me learn advanced calculus. Today, I couldn’t calculate a path integral if my life depended on it, but I still can have a meaningful conversation with my coworkers, who actually use this kind of stuff in their everyday work. This is important, because part of my job is telling them what to do, so I need to understand what is doable.

    Same goes for every piece of general education I’ve been given, from history to geography, to biology. My teachers have never managed to train me to draw anything more sophisticated than a stick figure, but I can tell various styles of architecture apart, and this just happens to be important in my line of work.

    Sometimes it’s not as funny, though. Recently, I played a rather popular computer game made by an American developer. The authors thought it would be funny to put in some foul vocabulary in a language their target audience doesn’t understand. Unfortunately, I can read cirillic script just fine, because my basic school gave me an introductory course of Russian.

    I consider my years at the university the best time of my life (with the exception of the last year, which I spent almost exclusively on being sick). The only thing I regret is that my domain of expertise is so “masculinized”. I’ve never gotten to know any female students or coworkers I could make friends with. I’m sure there are many more girls at MacDonald’s.

    I’ve been financially independent since I was 22. I don’t live with my parents anymore, but I still contribute to their household budget. This is only possible because I learn new things so fast. And this, in turn, is only possible because all those years in school have taught me how to learn.

  9. Ewa:
    I have never heard your husband speak English. However, it is not possible to keep up-to-date with a language and to retain idiomatic fluency – with no ‘calques’ or syntactic influences from other languages – unless you regularly spend time in that country. (I apologise, but your written English demonstrates exactly what I mean). I would say a trip every two years max is essential. With regular native-speaker contact in between.

    My fellow alumni who ended up teaching foreign languages in the secondary school system make regular trips to France, Spain and so on in their summer holidays: some even taking language refresher courses. Any less would be unprofessional.

    Unfortunately, ‘English’ is used as a basic form of communication in a very reduced international form. I would say that the standard for ‘fluency’ in English has been set a lot lower than for example that of French. Consider pronunciation, accent, use of idiom, breadth of vocabulary.

    It’s actually something I find rather offensive: as if somehow an essential part of my cultural identity has been mutilated by non-native speakers teaching a sad, impoverished (indeed utilitarian) version of my mother tongue.

  10. I have a feeling Ewa’s husband is a translator. In general, translators don’t need to actually *speak* in the text’s original language. Passive fluency is sufficient. What they really need is the ability to tell a figurative or idiomatic meaning from a literal one, so that “tractor beam” does not become “belka ciagnika” (a solid beam attached to a tractor vehicle). It’s a skill one can learn without talking to native speakers.

    As for linguistic mutilation, I wouldn’t mind all the world learning Polish so that I could write in a language I’m really comfortable with and let everybody else strain themselves trying to keep up with my trains of thought. I guess being a native speaker of a lingua franca involves a kind of tradeoff.

  11. Yes, english is much more difficult than we think.

    You have to learn english at a language school and then spend at least 2-3 yrs in England to speak the language 90% perfectly.

    everything else is a lie to yourself.

    I had english at school for 6 yrs and i still can not use the language, because i have never been in England for more than 2 weeks and i simlpy do not know how to pronounce many words and how to build the sentences correctly.

  12. People who choose to study at uni because they are passionate about the particular subject will surely do well with their education and will enjoy it, no matter what financial gain they may or may not have in the future. On the other hand, there are many students who go to private unis where their parents pay high tuition for a chosen course and all because the youngsters are too lazy to become independent, get a job and do sth constructive with their lives… and, of course, there are guys who want to avoid being called up for military services… these are people who DO NOT get educated – for them it’s just another way of faffing around in their life.
    I chose to study what I did and I enjoyed it and it has been bringing fruit in my life:-) Yet, I do like the fact that here in the UK the education people get seems to be more practical than theoretical!

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  14. If nothing has changed one can’t leave school in Poland before one’s 18.

    I think that there are some cultural differences between English and Polish approach. For start English people created the middle class, while Poles the intelligentsia. ;-) It might more or less define our respective aspirations.

    I cannot speak about education in Poland after the recent reforms, but I can refer to the old system. As I have always understood it matura doesn’t test one’s knowledge (there are enough tests all over the year for teachers to know what kids know), only determines whether one is mature. The exams weren’t as much a set of tests as a way to examine whether we could apply the acquired knowledge in a mature way – in writing an essay on a random topic for example, freely hopping across époques and domains. One could cite Alexander the Great, Rousseau and The Doors in one essay about Holocaust. What mattered was how one used them to support their arguments.

    The idea is that a mature person should be able to have an intelligent and thoughtful conversation on any topic. If it were only about knowledge necessary to earn money then we might finish just after primary school, or the first three grades as it was before the war – enough to learn how to write and count.

    I’m not sure we consider university only as the means to a good job. I know many people who finished a technicum (so they had a profession), and then went to study something completely unprofitable like philosophy or history, only to end up working as a manager in a foreign company producing yoghourt. It’s rather normal here that people do for life things unrelated to their personal interests. Our education is our hobby.

    Scatts: Reading through the comments on the post below, it might be reasonable to assume that quite a few people chose history as their subject!

    Do you mean Island?

  15. I rather assumed that Island’s studies lay in different directions! There were a lot of thoughtful and clearly interested comments from other people.

    One thing that worries me about this whole education thing is the extent to which it all relies on having a great memory – capacity to remember everything you’ve been taught or read. That’s not intelligence, is it?

  16. No, intelligence is:

    1.) our ability to use the things we were taught to our advantage
    2.) to link facts together
    3.) to segregate our memory in such a way that we could remember only the handy things and push others into sub-memory
    4.) to use the little facts we do remember in such a way that you couldn’t catch us on our not remembering anything!

  17. pinolona, I’m well aware my English is rusty. What’s more, I wouldn’t be astonished if I had French constructions there – for years now I have used much more of my pretty atrocious French, than much more fluent English (at least, I can write in English with pretty good spelling…). But are you really as narrow-sighted (no, I don’t want to say “short-sighted” :->) that you think the _efficient_ knowledge of language, enough to gain money from knowing it, is the perfect one, especially perfect in speech? Funny. (Jacek already suggested what my husband is doing :-> I can say, that one of the best Polish->English translators, a genius who translated Cyberiad, has many problems with understanding _spoken_ Polish).

    What’s more, I know a guy who speaks English with an obvious, horrible accent. The same man repeatedly corrects native speakers errors in writing. And he is right, each time.

  18. Sylwia,

    3.) to segregate our memory in such a way that we could remember only the handy things and push others into sub-memory

    I’m very good at this, perhaps too good, but the devil lies in the definition of “handy”. For example; most of the things I classify as handy, my wife thinks are supremely unimportant! :)

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  21. “…so perhaps I’m missing the point?” Possibly. You seem to be criticising universities for not training people for jobs but that’s not really what many courses of study are for. Surely employers should pay to train their workers, not the taxpayer.

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