Distilling the magic in education

Some time ago, I read somewhere, in a book by Charmian Clift, a story about a young American who was pulled from the surf in Greece and saved from drowning. After he recovered, he was asked what went through his mind while he was at the mercy of the sea.

He replied, “I thought – if I die now, all my education will have been wasted”.

I guess he felt this way because education is so often framed as an investment for the future. At least he didn’t just see education as a cost. But somehow the situation misses the magic of education. It makes education sound like some sort of fitness training to be endured in the hope that it will pay off, one day in the future, when one plays the big game.

This is not that surprising, given that education is, and has long been, seen as an expensive investment. Tuition fees are high and have been rising, not to mention the earnings that are foregone while students study.

But the language around education too often uses financial terminology. We are constantly reassured that education pays off, and makes economic sense. It increases the earning by graduates, increases taxation returns, and it drives productivity. Strong as these arguments are, these words keep reinforcing the idea that the main dimension by which education should be measured is monetary.

We seem to have forgotten that school and university can actually be fun, intrinsically rewarding, and can lay the foundations for rich social lives.

Looking back at school, the biggest things were the friendships and escapades. The same with university. The process of education gradually leads people to finding others with similar interests to themselves. Well-structured programs enable even the shier students to find soulmates. I think many students embark on formal education, on campus, primarily in search of friendships. Our marketing department seems to think the same thing – they tend to show photos of students laughing together.

Most of my own memories of education relate to experiences with friends, but the getting of knowledge has also been enriching in itself. Learning about evolution helped me to appreciate economics. The natural history and the little geology I learnt has increased my enjoyment of travel. I’m also interested in history, and I squeeze out narratives to better understand the places I visit and even the places I live. Sharing knowledge with people around me also strengthens social relationships.

I feel that education has also influenced my values. I cherish curiosity and try to be open and interested in new people, things, and ideas. Education helps one to accept a wide range of new perspectives.

When I think back to the television series I watched as a child, I remember Gilligan’s Island, and to this day I feel that the Professor was the most important character. I hope that through education we can continue to fashion not only the economic prowess of our island nation, but the culture as well. What would Australia be like if a seventh of our population were professors? Surely that would not just deliver economic value every now and again, but it would enrich us all in terms of curiosity, openness, a sense of fun, and would strengthen our entire social fabric.

Education delivers every day. It isn’t a just an investment for the future, in some ways it is a life occupation in itself.

Professor Merlin Crossley is DVC (Academic Quality) at UNSW



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