The Value of an Education

I was never meant to go to university. It was not something that had crossed my parent’s minds. My mother finished grade ten. My father left school mid-way through grade eight.

My father never wanted anything except to be a successful commercial fisherman. He had no capital. He also had a wife and child (me) when he was twenty. He took a barber’s course and cut hair in Gimli, Manitoba, a small rural fishing village on the shore of Lake Winnipeg. He was up before dawn, out on the lake lifting nets, would ice the fish, then get cleaned up and go to the barber shop. My mother said that he needed to make enough money from the summer cottagers and tourists to get them through the winter when the only customers were local people. It took him a long time but, eventually, he reached the point where he was able to stop barbering and earn a living from fishing. However, he worked two jobs for many years, neither of which provided enough money to support our family.

The normal path for someone like me, the son of someone seasonally employed, was to go fishing. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I was hopeless as a fisherman. I didn’t share my father’s passion, had no desire to set nets, lift them in weather both fair and foul, suffer the vagaries of a catch that might or might not appear; in winter, chop through four to six feet of ice, lift and set nets in thirty and forty degree below weather.

Instead, I wanted to read books. I was fortunate because we had a complete set of The Books of Knowledge. In those days, that is the 1940s and 50s, The Books of Knowledge were full of history and mythology rather than science. I reveled in stories of battles and bravery, in poetry and stories of the gods.

Every Christmas relatives gave me books. There was no one with an advanced education to guide my reading. Still, I got copies of the classics: Robin Hood, The Black Arrow, Swiss Family Robinson, The Man in the Iron Mask. I became a voracious reader. High school introduced The Red Badge of Courage, Pride and Prejudice, Return of the Native, numerous plays by Shakespeare, poetry that was more than verse and, surprisingly, Canadian poets like Earl Birney and Anne Marriot. “David” and “The Wind Our Enemy” revealed that it was possible to write about Canadian subject matter from a Canadian point of view.

I was hired for a summer job at the United Grain Growers because a great uncle worked there. I was probably the only child of someone seasonally employed. The other summer employees were the sons of middle class parents. It was these summer co-workers who said since they were all going to university, why didn’t I also go?

To my parents’ credit, when I phoned and said I’d like to go to university, after some stunned silence and a consultation between my mother and father, they said yes. My grandparents said I could live with them, free room and board. I had enough money from my work to pay tuition and books.

The university was a strange and foreign place. Professors stood up in front of classes and lectured. There was no one checking home work. There were just suggestions about what we should read. No one was taking responsibility for me, for making sure I read my texts, read other sources, made notes, studied. At first, it seemed like a lark. Then the Christmas grades came out. The lark was over. I was, I realized, the only person rowing my boat. Lesson one. How to be responsible for myself. Lesson two. Learn how to learn. Lesson three. Learn discipline. Turn up for classes. Make choices, study or party. Understand consequences.

I don’t remember the periodic table or even what we studied in first year physics. The lesson I do remember is realizing the difference between arguing and discussing, arguing and debating, yelling louder than someone else or marshaling a group of facts to support a position. Pounding the table and shouting didn’t get you anywhere in a seminar.

I learned about things I never knew existed. I took Philosophy and along with learning about Aristotle and Plato, I took logic, formal and informal. Although I was the despair of my professor, Davey Owen, his course in logic opened up my mind, showed me how to dispel faulty arguments and to prove that they were faulty. In place of punching someone with whom I disagreed, I was able to analyze and identify the logic or lack of it in their argument. There is power in being able to say, “You are arguing in a circle.” And demonstrate it.

In Gimli, it seemed that there were few choices. Local people who had gone to university had become a doctor or lawyer, dentist, pharmacist. No one mentioned astrophysics or the multi types of geologist or economists or archeologists. No one ever mentioned becoming a plant pathologist. University was like a cornucopia with possibilities spilling from it. It presented possibilities I never knew existed.

I stumbled along taking courses because I was interested in them, not because they led in a coherent fashion to a job. After first year, I took political science, philosophy, economics, English, the sort of conglomeration that many who see university as a sort of trade school rail against. I wasn’t learning a trade. I was getting an education. I was learning to think and to understand. And gradually, my love of literature was turning into a desire to become a published writer.

When I look back, I wish I’d taken courses in history. They would have provided a framework for everything else I was taking. There were no courses in journalism but as a famous journalist once said to me, don’t worry about the specific techniques that go with a genre. You can teach yourself those or learn them on the job. Focus on learning to write. Once you can write, you can write anything and he was correct. I learned to write short stories, novels, children’s stories, poetry, plays, articles.

Lately, on the internet and sometimes in the media there have been attacks on higher education. It is, according to these writers, a waste of time. They use examples of someone with a university degree working as a barista or a waitress. They want universities to become trade schools. They equate training to education. The rail about all the student debt that is accumulated by the time someone graduates. They never talk about the opportunities that are created, the possibilities that now are known that were not known.

Something sinister, destructive has happened to our educational system. Going to university used to mean getting an education, becoming an educated person. However, over the years it became to mean getting a degree. Before I retired, it became common to hear students talk about getting a degree as quickly as possible, with as little effort as possible. All they were concerned about were getting credits. Some would even argue that it was their right to have a degree because having a degree would get them a job.

What had been a journey to being educated was becoming obtaining a piece of paper whose only purpose was getting hired. Somewhere, lost in this transition was the reason that people with degrees used to get jobs is because they were educated, that is they were knowledgeable, could think logically and could communicate effectively. They had learned to learn and any employer hiring them could be confident that they had the ability to learn the necessary specifics of any job.

I first taught high school, then college and, finally, university classes. I taught in the Fine Arts faculty, not in Engineering or computer science or Chemistry. Worse yet, I taught people how to write fiction. The ignorant clamor against such courses, such degrees. But our graduates made fine editors, used their writing skills for a wide variety of jobs. Every business needs people skilled in communication. Poets, with their attention to every word, every punctuation mark, make fine editors. Writers who understand narrative create everything from advertisements to television shows and computer games.

Part of the attack on higher education is coming as a backlash against the exposure of ignorance. Remember, I said that I took formal and informal logic. I learned to think critically, to analyze, to search for the truth. In the past year there have been reports of men in Africa who, out of ignorance, have shot and killed women who were inoculating children against serious diseases. In Texas recently a law was proposed that the teaching of critical thinking be banned. Critical thinking, after all, exposes nonsense, superstition, lack of logic. There is little distance between the murderers of women in Africa who are trying to protect children against disease and the banning of critical thinking. Both champion ignorance.

Education dissipates ignorance and superstition. It gives the most critical skill of all. It taught me how to learn. After a lifetime of learning and teaching, I can say that was worth every penny, every minute of effort, every sacrifice.