What’s the purpose of pursuing higher education? The cynic among us would perhaps say that there is no purpose – that spending three to nine years (or more) of one’s life being “enslaved” by the education system as we endure sleepless nights of study that culminate in a stress-filled labor over final exams – hold no merit. These same critics would perhaps justify their position by highlighting the number to graduates each year whose job hunt after graduation seem to last as many years as it took them to earn their degree.
If not here in the Netherlands, then surely in other parts of the world, students find themselves being thrown into the shark tank of the job market to scramble for meagre employment resources after graduation. Some will end up in jobs that bear no resemblance to their field of study, others might be turned away from available jobs because they are deemed overqualified, while others will be told the oft-used excuse that they need “more experience”. Still others will have to settle with being paid less than it will take to finance the monthly repayments for their burdening student loans.
But remember this is the cynic’s opinion, and while there is validity in these arguments, one will find that there is much value – to oneself and to the world – to invest in continuous learning. In fact, many students who may have not yet become jaded by the prospect of University and its inescapable drudgeries may be able to produce an inexhaustible list of benefits of having a University education.
Yet, despite all the flowery (and valid) advantages that could be envisioned, a recent experience had me thinking about an important but perhaps less talked about skill that one should hopefully develop – sometimes unmindfully – with having gone through years of mulling over a copious number of text books, writing expository essays, engaging in lecture discussions and thoughtfully analyzing published research.
Sitting among strangers, I caught myself doing what most students of psychology do when you’re not looking – discreetly dissecting your conversations. In this personal, tried-and-true way of gaining knowledge about the human condition, I listened to the errors in thinking that, on many occasions throughout the conversation, led to misunderstanding and defensiveness. I listened as the speakers presented their personal prejudices in ways that were dismissive of other alternatives and which only served to stall the dialogue.
I listened to the assumptions made and the unspoken dissent – glossed over by feigned concession as they quickly moved on to the next topic without resolution. In that moment, I quietly wondered about the set of conditions that must be in place for an individual to develop the ability to think critically, to communicate thoughts effectively and to anticipate and respond to one’s own emotional needs and that of the other person during a conversation. Are University students being taught critical thinking skills?
More than being able to offer graduates proof of having pursued higher education by providing them with a certificate upon completion, the unarguable aim of higher education institutions should be to instill in its students the values and skills that will be transferrable to their personal and professional lives.
A University committed to elevating its responsibility to impart critical thinking and other higher order thinking skills to its students, versus promoting rote learning, is one that sends a clear message that pursuing higher education is indeed purposeful and necessary.