Sunday, December 14, 2008

Learning The Difference Between Getting An Education and A Degree

My one clear memory from Sociology 101. It was an evening class from 6 to 9 p.m. at my local community college.  My classmates were adults who worked during the day, part-time students and a back row of older women who refused to leave the planet without their degree. It may have taken them twenty some years and literally had to wait for their children to be grown or their husbands to die or leave them in order for these women to take classes. Those old girls meant business, no matter how bad their feet hurt, they came to learn.

The instructor looked at the class and said something that sounded like the following:

“Most of you will only advance one or two levels beyond your current class status. This can be proven statistically. So if you are a lower middle class person you might be able to advanced to a middle or upper middle class person. No matter what you do or the education you obtain you will not, statistically speaking, move more that one or two levels beyond your current status.”

Sitting next to me was an auto mechanic with grease in his nails. Other students who were hanging on for dear life with whatever jobs they could scrape up during the day. There were a few clerical workers. Some of my classmates had just gotten back from New Jersey where they earned day labor wages for picking vegetables.

That statement was not setting well with my classmates. There was anger. There were challenges and examples given of Americans who had succeeded and prospered beyond anyone’s statistical curve. The older women gave him a litany of non-sports or entertainment figures that put a lie to his statement.

The instructor agreed. “There are always exceptions to the rule but as a whole the numbers don’t lie. There is not that much aberration from the statistical norm.”

At that point I started to tune him out and listen to my classmates. They were hurt. At the time I hadn’t heard the expression “lies, damn lies and statistics”. The older ladies were muttering under their breath. The younger men were telling the instructor that they “will prove that they are the aberration” so they didn’t give a damn what the statistics said about how far they would go.

Eventually folks simmered down and the lecture continued.  I made a mental note not to believe anything this guy said that I couldn’t verify elsewhere.

My classmates and I wanted an education. We put a lot on the line to show up for school only to be told it did not matter.  Many of us were not middle class. Some of us were just a few steps away from being called “Trash.” Some of us, even while working, couldn’t reach the official United States level of poverty. 

For many of my classmates there was an unspoken definition of education that implied freedom from financial pain and oppression. Get the degree and you will be protected.

The California Budget Crisis Affects All Income Class Levels

I bring this up because in California there is discussion of eliminating 10,000 freshman admissions due to the California budget crisis.  The talk is currently on removing admission spaces, raising tuition and the elimination of classes at the Community College level.

What typically happens is that if there is an tuition increase or a cut in admissions at the college or university level students will migrate down to the community colleges to pick up classes and transfer later. It is an excellent idea and it will save students a lot of money. Many of the instructors and adjunct professors are the same people they would have met at the four year colleges and universities.

But that academic migration downward will stop some economically deprived students that need a second or third chance to “get an education.” They will be unable to get the classes they need. At the community college level here in California that could mean the instruction loss of:

  • Remedial English and Math classes to make up for what was not taught at the K-12 level of of education,
  • English language classes for foreign students who attend community colleges as a way of becoming accustomed to the American education system,
  • Vocational Education in fields such as construction, health care, computers, law enforcement and culinary instruction to name a few,
  • Academics programs for Pre-Law, Pre-Med, Science and Technology programs and Teacher preparation and so many more.

It has been said that what California tends to put into place the nation eventually follows. This would be a bad, bad thing to spread throughout the country. More educational opportunities lead to smarter workers, attract good employers and increase the tax base.  We need more educated (technical, vocational and academic) people, not less.

So What Does An Education Mean?

Well there is the classical definition that has nothing to do with a degree, vocation or enhanced employment opportunities. Judy Yee at Teacher’s Mind Resources has a full breakdown of The Meaning of Education, what it was and what it could be.

Former Homeschooler Tammy Drennan writes:

Education involves entwining wisdom and discernment with knowledge. It means making judgments about knowledge. Education requires learners to ask why, not just what and how. And when they answer the question why, it requires them to ask, “In light of why, what now?”

Education involves time to ponder. It involves searching and wandering (and wondering) -- and conversation, too – with wiser individuals than ourselves. It involves relationships – with real people, the real world, real books, and above all, with oneself. It involves imagination and creativity, both cooperative and lone.

That is what I thought an education was until I started getting mixed up with other people’s expectations. It was like a manta, “get the degree, get a good job.”

There is the late 20th century definition that seems to imply that an education is a group of skills necessary to perform at a certain level of performance. It could be vocational. It could be a profession. You learn it, prove that you know it and get a piece of paper.  With that paper your life if perfect. 

Naw, I don’t think so. There is a post at Her Bad Mother’s Basement called Where I Wish I Was where a mom writes about the choices she made after the degree that didn’t end up financially like she planned. Sherri, guest writing at her sister’s blog Weebles Wobblob writes about how her life changed dramatically when she moved away from “the path”:

I spent the first 30+ years of my life creating and living a life of illusion. I was following the path that had been laid out for me: college education, professional job, getting married, and having kids. As I took each step, it seemed like I was moving ahead, but in looking back, I realize that each step took me into a deeper trance-like state. It took the very emotional crises of divorce (which shattered the illusion) to get me to “wake up”.

Like pantyhose, one type or size of education does not fit all people. I understand that standard colleges and universities have little to do with feeding the brain and everything to do with passing the final and creating an alumni base of donors.

It took a long time for me to know that I have the power to satisfy most of my intellectual curiosity without having to shell out thousands of dollars. Being open to the possible takes care of the rest. The older ladies that I shared the stage with as we got our diplomas would agree with me. But it was cool to flip the tassel for the first time with them, their collective bad feet and all.

I leave you with a potentially contentious question. What does an education mean to you?  Do you feel like you have put your education to good use?


This post originally appeared on BlogHer where I am a Contributing Editor.

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