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Does this degree make my ego look big?

Mia Lillis | Friday, November 8, 2013

College isn’t everything. One can look to successful college dropouts, such as Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs or Ralph Lauren, as proof of this. Such a move is a step towards dismantling the fabricated mystique of college education insofar as it reveals that financial success does not inherently hinge on the academic knowledge one receives in college. However, this move fails to paint the whole picture. While as college students we may be tempted to espouse ideas of intellectual elitism, such ideas are not only dangerous, they are unfounded and inaccurate. Intelligence and education in no way grants us any kind of inherent worth, for several reasons.
First and foremost, a “good” education is a limited opportunity in the United States, one that is most commonly afforded to people from higher socioeconomic statuses. Enrollment rates in higher education institutions reflect this – about three-fourths of students enrolled in “competitive” college institutions, such as Emory, Harvard or our very own University, come from families in the top income quartile for our nation, while on the flip side, only three percent of students enrolled in such institutions come from families in the bottom income quartile. Several factors contribute to this phenomenon, including but not limited to: the pervasive positive correlation between quality of a school and the school zone residents’ socioeconomic status; the opportunity cost of college, which members of a higher socioeconomic status can afford but those of lower socioeconomic status cannot, among other reasons. Basing our measure of worth on participation in institutions that are largely inaccessible to broad members of the populace is problematic because it means that for most of us, our “worth” – as derived from our education – has been largely, arbitrarily determined by the fact that we were born into a family of higher socioeconomic status, taking all agency away from us personally and rendering our “achievement” entirely unimpressive.
Secondly, the notion that the specialized, esoteric knowledge that we have accrued over the course of four years (or twelve years, or twenty years) somehow fundamentally makes our opinion better than that of the non-college educated individual is ludicrous. I may at times be tempted to think that my study of political science – and specifically, contentious movements – has granted my political opinion the status of being “worth” more than someone who has not been college-educated, but Dorothy Day stands as a strong counter-example to such a narcissistic notion. A college dropout, Dorothy Day has played a key role in shaping the contentious theory that is studied in institutions across the nation, simply based on her own life experiences.
Finally, academia is simply too unreliable for anyone to be able to assign it value based on its “truth.” A cursory glance at the history of academia will reveal the prevalence not only of untruths, but of socially dangerous untruths. Academia and education have at times been used as tools for oppression. Phrenology, phenomenology and evolutionary biology, among other intellectual fields, were all used to justify the preservation of inequity. Try as uneducated people may have to speak out against the oppression, they could not compete with “academia.”
The use of these fields as tools of racism is now largely dismissed as pseudoscience, but historically many well-respected academics staunchly defended these “truths.” Even now, a significant portion of gender studies is devoted to dismantling scientific studies that have influenced the development of modern hardline gender essentialism – while several of these anthropological studies have now been revealed as using faulty scientific methods and reasoning, they were (and largely, still are) firmly regarded as “truth.” If the historical trajectory of “truth” in the world of academia is any indicator, many things which we consider to be true in our age will inevitably be disproved or deconstructed in the future, most likely in ways which we cannot even begin to imagine.
Pursuing education out of personal interest is entirely respectable, and this viewpoint is in no way an attack of such a pursuit. Neither is this meant to indicate that an individual’s pursuit of education cannot have positive outcomes for society. But intelligence and education should not be used as measures of an individual’s comparative worth to other non-educated individuals. Maybe we’re smart. Maybe we’ve become experts in our respective majors. Maybe for some of us, thanks to the way our society is structured, this guarantees us a better chance of getting a high-paying job than others. But beyond that, so what?

Mia Lillis is a senior residing in Cavanaugh Hall. She can be contacted at mlillis@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not         necessarily those of The Observer.