Education is About: Learning and Understanding

Spring 2016, I reflected on the real value of ‘college degrees’ and the cost of opportunity associated for continuing college learning. I reached out to Mike. M for an opinion. Mike was the first college professor to dig deeper into my reflections about ‘the world around us’. We would on occasion chat about societal problems and issues. Mike introduced new perspectives and context to age old problems. We embarked on a journey that would lead ongoing participation in academic conversations, discourse, and reflective practices for better decision making.

I recall, Mike asking me, “Could societies live together?”, No question has had as big an impact on my inquisitive mind, and education to understand. Because of Mike and like-minded mentors who really go the extra mile I found out for myself that I am self-motivated, self-directed adult learner, I continued to learn, and continued to learn, and now continue to learn and understand.

The question I asked Mike was, “What value does a BA vs Masters vs PHD hold?” His response…

Dear Gurjinder,

My two cents. First we must distinguish between degrees and the education to which degrees are meant to attest. Degrees are merit badges, outward signs of accomplishment that the world uses to decide, without having to think too much, what it opinion it will have of us or our possible capacities. (I’m not saying I support the notion. I am simply describing it.)

An education, on the other hand, is a learning, a coming to understanding, a finding of our way to insight, to truths even. Some of us don’t feel comfortable or at ease unless we understand the water we swim in. Education does that for us, degrees don’t.

Another way to think about degrees is that they are keys. They unlock doors. If you have the right key, you can get in. If you don’t have the right key, you can’t.

Thinking about degrees as keys leads to the second point. Not all keys are the same. A degree in labor studies is a different degree, in some ways but not in others, than a degree in astrophysics. Some doors either will open. But there are also doors that only one or the other will open; and there are also many doors that neither will open.

In other words, degrees differ as to the education to which they attest. There are certain things that every person with a bachelor’s degree, or a master’s degree, or a Ph. D., can be expected to know. But there are many more things that they can be expected not to know. Sometimes the degree itself, and what it signifies that is the same as every other degree, is enough. But not always.

And sometimes the degree is a poor substitute for what we really want to know—which is, what does the person with this degree actually understand? What do they actually know? What do you learn in labor studies? Hopefully you learn that the world does not have to be the way it is. That people are not just “resources,” even human ones; that wages should not be treated as a cost of doing business to be minimized, but as the reward for hard work to be maximized; that working less means working better and deserves more; that government is a productive contribution to our welfare and not a drag on it; etc.  

Who should get a degree in labor studies? Every politician and true public servant!

What opportunities are available to a person with a BA in Labor Studies? Generally, I would say that Labor Studies is a good all-round, general purpose degree, especially for someone who is concerned to understand the world from the standpoint of those who do the its work, rather than from the standpoint of those who do not (or do not have to), and there are such people. But I would not say that Labor Studies is a good special purpose degree. It is good enough to open the many doors that any degree will open, but there are very few doors that it alone will open.

What about advanced degrees? Jobs are one reason, but again not labor studies. In my experience, it helped me to get advanced degrees because it afforded me an opportunity to hang out with a lot of other smart, interested people and helped me learn how to learn. Also, the degrees opened a few doors. But everything I have really l needed to know, that have done me and my work the most good, I learned in the labor movement and from its many learners and strivers like yourself!

Okay, maybe it was more than two cents. But there it is. Uncensored and un-paraphrased. (I apologize for the occasional obscurities!)

In solidarity,


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