The Theory of General Profitability: A Political Defense of Unmarketable Education

Posted on January 6, 2011


rather depressing anecdote:

“At times, I wanted to disappear forever and not bother anyone with my stupid money problems,” recalls Jane (not her real name), who, like many other graduates in Nova Scotia, accrued tens of thousands of dollars of debt in student loans over the course of her university education. In her thirties, Jane’s debt is over $60,000 but under $90,000. She is currently filing for bankruptcy, and her financial and legal counsellors have advised her not to publicly discuss the particulars of her case.“I made the decision to declare bankruptcy because it was the only option available to me,” says Jane in an email interview. “I owed a lot of money from student loans and debt from private institutions…I realize that yes, I did sign a contract to help me attain my education, however with a reasonable expectation that I was going to find a job and be in a position to pay the money back. Well, the fairy tale didn’t work out for me and I am desperate for the chance to move on with my life.”

The story goes on to explain how, if Dr. Tim O’Neill, an economist hired by the government of Nova Scotia to examine the state of education in the province, has his way, future students will be in even more dire straits. O’Neill’s report recommends total deregulation of tuition, which could result in a tripling of Nova Scotian tuition fees.

There isn’t a lot that I can add to the discussion around the O’Neill report itself. For more on that, I must reluctantly refer you to the analysis provided by the Canadian Federation of Students’ Nova Scotia component. They’ve actually done a pretty good job on this one. What I can do is reflect briefly on a predictable right-wing objection to Jane’s story. In November, when I was too busy writing terrible fiction to report on it, I attended a panel discussion in which Tim O’Neill was given a chance to explain his ideas to the students, and students were given a chance to ask him questions. It was a total feeding frenzy. I have never seen so much hostility directed at one person. I felt sorry for him until I heard some of his smug and obnoxious responses to the questions. O’Neill argued clearly high tuition fees are not a deterrent, because students continue to attend university even after fees are raised. He also made the horribly patronizing suggestion that “…most of you, since you are students, are largely unconcerned with the restructuring issues”.

But enough about Tim O’Neill. The comment which best attracted my attention was not said by him, but by Charles Cirtwill. Cirtwill, one of the panelists and the president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (I invite you to infer what you will from that name), apparently did not think that the report went far enough. I forget his exact wording, but he asked O’Neill something to the effect of “What will your changes do to provide an economic incentive to enter degree programs which will pay off in the long run?”

This thinly veiled attack on the humanities and other “soft” disciplines brings us back to Jane. Jane, who has wisely chosen to be anonymous in her contribution to the media coop’s story, does not specify what her degree was. I suspect that if Cirtwill were to read her story, his immediate question for Jane would concern the subject of her degree. If, as he would undoubtedly suspect, she studied History or English or Fine Arts, then Cirtwill would triumphantly shout “Aha! Then you have nobody but yourself to blame for your dire financial straits! Had you chosen a more marketable discipline to specialize in, you would have had no problem paying off your debts after graduation. Forcing students to assume financial responsibility for their work will encourage them to undertake more practical disciplines and therefore contribute more to both their own finances and to society as a whole”.

The first problem with this logic is that his initial assumption, that Jane studied a soft discipline, is not necessarily correct. In this economy, it is entirely conceivable that she was trained in business. I, however, would like to answer Cirtwell with another, very well-known, anecdote, which I think is instructional.

Imagine that Cirtwell had been operating the AIMS in 1905, and that one morning he read that a German by the name of Albert Einstein had published a paper on what he called special relativity, which had mind-bending implications for our understanding of space and time. Consistent with his current views on education, Cirtwell would have had to scoff at this discovery, and wonder why the University of Zurich was bothering to fund such unmarketable garbage. Without the benefit of foresight, Cirtwell might have even said that Einstein had done more good at the  patent office, where he assisted in the infinitely more profitable and beneficial project of technological innovation.

Speaking from today’s perspective, of course, even a cynic like Cirtwell would have to concede that Einstein’s contributions were revolutionary, and well-worth the investment of time and money necessary to produce them. Besides eventually allowing us to invent neat (and profitable) things like the Global Positioning System, Einstein’s theory provided what most would admit to be an enormous improvement to human knowledge which was a good in itself. According to Cirtwell, however, people who currently have the potential to produce the next big scientific breakthrough, classic work of literature, or generation-defining philosophical idea, should re-think their priorities and go into a more profitable field. Perhaps Einstein should have followed his father into the Electrical business. Who, after all, does not remember the name Hermann Einstein?

I don’t mean to demean those who are studying more immediately marketable disciplines like engineering, medicine or accounting. Lord knows the world needs doctors, engineers and accountants. But people like me, who specialize in more esoteric fields, have come under attack by financially obsessed economists, politicians and think-tanks who would prefer to see milennia-old cultural projects as expendable. The appropriate response, I think, is to vigorously reaffirm the value of our disciplines. If not, then we are at risk of being the first students to get pushed under the austerity bus.

Society is significantly enriched by historians, writers, philosophers, and artists, and eliminating these vocations or restricting them to the children of the wealthy so that we can earn more cold, hard cash, would not be in the public interest.


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