When I was still an undergraduate, an emotive Israeli lecturer of mine, now turned friend and colleague, told me what it meant to study a PhD.
“If you study a PhD in search of jobs or opportunities, you’re going to have a bad time.” He remarked to what was a promising cohort of final semester students. “More than anything my years spent as a PhD candidate taught me how to think, it changed the way I perceive the world and interact in it.”
Back then the professors’ words seemed to have little impact on me. I hadn’t intended to continue with formal study, although intuitively I knew I would not put the skills I learned to waste as so many graduates seemed to do upon leaving university and entering the routine world of work. Here, increasing specialization of jobs, competitive environments, and monotony of tasks to be done attached to a fortnightly wage and your means of survival leaves little space for continued learning.
Few co-workers I have encountered in such environments have been willing to engage in meaningful conversations that extend beyond the scope of organization objectives, politics or relations. Upon entering this world, it quickly dawned on me that our society doesn’t care much for personal education past a formal piece of paper that grants access to certain occupations. Personal development and learning have been effectively conquered by the notion of ‘training’ — that which helps you do these jobs better.
Many people are waking up to the fact that the purpose underlying education is for them to serve a function. We place so much emphasis on education — but only up to a certain point. Restricted to physical places of learning such as the school, the university, the college, we tell people that receiving an education is important insofar as it will secure their future as a worker.
In youth, education is central to our lives. In adulthood this imperative is replaced by the expectation that you fulfil your role as a tax-paying member of society.
The words of Robert Maynard Hutchins help to shed light on what is so wrong with this process:
“Childhood and youth are no time to get an education. They are the time to get ready to get an education. The most that we can hope for from these uninteresting and chaotic periods of life is that during them we shall be set on the right path, the path of realizing our human possibilities through intellectual effort and aesthetic appreciation. The great issues, now issues of life and death for civilisation, call for mature minds.”
Education has become the means to an end when once it was an end in itself.
The fact that people have access to more information than ever before — literally infinite knowledge in the palm of their hand — but not the faculties to put such information in order or distinguish truth from falsehood demonstrates how twisted our priorities have become.
It was upon this recognition that the words of my eccentric Israeli professor resurfaced in my mind. Now as an early career researcher and teacher, I live a life of daily gratitude. I can happily say that I love what I do and truly think that it is important. I’m learning every day and try my best to pass on what I learn to others.
Many people that I encounter in similar positions are often quick to bemoan their circumstances and express dissatisfaction over the demands of what is an independent and intellectually challenging occupation. Granted, some of these individuals are further down the track of post-graduate studies than myself and may therefore have encountered difficulties I am yet to conceive of. Perhaps for some, an unfulfilling project combined with the burden of expectation and the sustained drive required to work through problems when they arise, can culminate in an unpleasant and trying experience.
Yet still, it is my contention that PhD research is a privilege and honour. It stands as one of the last bastions in society where others leave you alone to read, think, advance your understanding, and in doing so, hopefully contribute new insights to the domain of human knowledge. I take my work very seriously and try to disseminate what I’m doing not just to a small circle of academics and colleagues but the wider public as well.
But should it be the case that formal study within such a program be the only recognised form of ‘education for educations sake’ in adulthood? Must learning and development be forever confined to a span of years after which we are expected to join the fold of working monotony? Few would disagree with the statement that education makes better human beings out of people. So why is it that encouraging lifelong education is so far down our rung of priorities?
The dominant narrative programmed into us by our institutions and culture is to earn money, gain security and buy things. When these requirements are fulfilled, the last thing many people want to do when they get home from working a job half likely despise is to commit their mind to another task that requires focus, patience and attention. Far easier to just switch off, switch on the television, and fall into an entertained state of inertia so readily available to us today in the form of Netflix and the blue light of an LSD screen.
Relationships suffer, for you do not have the time to invest in them. An understanding of the world beyond the individual’s daily existence is derived through inflammatory news headlines and the bickering of commenters on social media. Human potential is stifled by the need to work and earn money because this is the only way the majority of people can afford to live. Education becomes the means to this end.
I conclude with a hundred-year old quote from the genius of Walter Lippmann, 1914:
“The fear of losing one’s job, the necessity of being somebody in a crowded and clamorous world, the terror that old age will not be secured, that your children will lack opportunity — there are a thousand terrors which arise out of the unorganized and unstable economic system under which we live. These are not terrors which can be blown away by criticism; they will go only when society is intelligent enough to have made destitution impossible, when it secures opportunity to every child, when it establishes for every human being a minimum of comfort below which he cannot sink. Then a great amount of social hesitancy will disappear. Every issue will not be fought as if life depended on it, and mankind will have emerged from a fear economy.”
In our present-day fear economy characterised by the casualization of the labour force, growing precarity and bullshit jobs, education is portrayed as the way to wealth and security by businesses masquerading as higher education institutes.
But if education really does make better, more conscientious human beings out of people, then should it not be pursued as an end in itself rather than a means to an end?
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Alex Trauth-Goik is a PhD candidate at the University of Wollongong, Australia, whose research focuses on the development of dataveillance systems in the People’s Republic of China and Western liberal democracies. Previously a government media intelligence officer, he strives to offer fresh perspectives on foreign affairs, tech and China (coupled with the odd analysis of human nature).