Does Education Have to Pay Off?

    20. November 2010, 10:54

    The value of education and knowledge

    With the financial crisis there has been a renewed call to invest in education. The reason for this is evident: education pays off. However, particularly in times of economic turmoil we tend to lose sight of non-monetary interests and values. Hence we should ask: does education have to pay off financially? Or is knowledge also a value in itself?

    Educating our children in physics, chemistry, and other sciences is an early investment in future technological advancements. Although such investments might eventually be financially profitable, they also promise non-monetary profits-environmental protection, for instance. Education can not only promote a sensibility for environmental problems but also promote scientific knowledge and abilities that may be used to solve environmental problems. Therefore it is good to promote a thirst for knowledge within young people. If they want to know about the function of the sun in early years, it could turn into a scientific investigation about how to use solar energy later on.

    We have thus arrived at a first answer to the question of the value of education and knowledge: it is a means to the end of technological progress and thus a contribution in solving pressing environmental problems. However, this answer is incomplete. We also seek knowledge for its own sake. Not every inquiry needs to lead to an applicable result. This attitude can be found most obviously in children. They want to know how the sun warms and how power is generated. This interest in knowledge exists independently of the need for technical solutions to any given problem like global warming.

    How is this interest in knowledge connected to the value of knowledge? Undisputedly, knowledge has an instrumental value for those who acquire it; for example, knowledge and certain skills are connected to job opportunities. However, despite this instrumental value, in which sense does knowledge improve life directly? Let us focus on the perspective of those who seek knowledge, thereby focusing on the quality of their experiences. What is it like to gain knowledge? The attentiveness and concentration needed in knowledge acquisition yield valuable experiences. Individual moments of comprehension can be extremely enriching. It is elevating when small details, pieces of information, and fragments of knowledge suddenly form a unified picture; we can suddenly explain a phenomenon even though it may remain astonishing nevertheless. These experiences are valuable on its own, beyond all instrumental value. The pursuit of knowledge thus creates the possibility of fulfilled time.

    This point of view also reveals important aspects of education in the arts. Aesthetic appreciation, such as exploring the profoundness of a work of art and admiring its magnitude, also goes along with valuable experiences. This is an important reason to promote an understanding of art and music by means of education. At first glance, it seems that aesthetic education is more difficult to justify than scientific education. It is more often questioned than the latter-its value is contested. Subjects such as art and music are even temporally trimmed. As a defence of aesthetic education, some argue that musical education also increases mathematical skills. Since mathematical skills are in turn needed for future technical inventions, in this line of reasoning even aesthetic education is justified by its contribution to technical progress. This is, however, only a marginal side effect of aesthetic education. Instead, we should focus more directly on the valuable experiences aesthetic education allows. As we have seen, even with regard to scientific education, we should focus on the valuable experiences which accompany knowledge acquisition. Here, too, we should not just focus on the instrumental value of certain skills and knowledge.

    There is a non-monetary benefit of a greater understanding of our world. By focusing solely on the instrumental value of knowledge, knowledge that can be cashed in financially, we lose sight of an important facet of what enriches our life. The financial crisis should lead us to a reflection on the non-monetary aspects of a good life. This reflection helps us not to lose sight of the non-monetary aspects of education. (Kirsten Meyer, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin,

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