Respect for Education: Why Do We Have to Fight for it?

Photo by Kevin Scott Hall

On the first day of the semester, I ask my students to take out a piece of paper. Then I tell them to take five minutes or so and answer this question: “Why am I here?”

After the time is up, I ask them to read their answers out loud. Many go with the obvious first answer: “My advisor told me to take it” or “It’s required.”

But after that first thirty seconds, many go a little deeper. I get variations of “I am the first generation in my family to go to college and I want to make them proud” to “I hope this will help me to get a better job and make more money” or “I want to learn to speak/write better” (depending on the class I’m teaching).

I teach at a college famous for its diverse student body — lots of kids from the inner city, international students, both working-class and upper-middle-class, and all ethnicities.

I come from a working-class family myself. Mine was the first generation to go to college in my family. For my father, it was kind of a hard sell to get him to go along with the college program in the beginning, but he eventually realized that this would likely get his kids in a better position in life than the one he had when he was starting.

I understand the need to make more money and to please the parents and to learn some skills.

But what I really try to get at in a discussion following the writing prompt is to help the students learn to value education for education’s sake. A good education should make us better people. We can become better critical thinkers. We can understand folks from all different backgrounds and learn about the world outside of our backyard. We can develop our intellect and our imagination and our curiosity — gifts that keep on giving throughout life.

And yet, these days education is under assault. It is sold to us by politicians and businessmen as mainly a way to make money. By championing that argument, we are cheapening education.

We always honor our military personnel and veterans, as we should. We hold our emergency personnel in high regard, as we should. Even with a recognition that some of our rogue police officers taint the profession, most give respect to the police, firefighters, EMT workers, and healthcare workers.

Not only do teachers not get the same level of respect, but higher education is often scoffed at in this country. If you go to college you are “elitist” or taught “by a bunch of liberals.”

While there are certainly those who slide through college doing just enough to get by and might have family connections to help them land the post-college job, there is little respect given to the students who work a job and sleep five hours a night for four years to better themselves. Why isn’t that self-discipline and massive accomplishment of reading, papers, presentations, and such, revered by those outside of academia?

And there is very little respect given to the professors who actually teach these students. I’ve blogged about this before, but three-quarters of college professors are adjuncts, meaning they are hired year by year at paltry wages, with no guarantee of benefits or job security.

Many laypeople don’t realize that. They still have this movie version of a ’60s professor making a ton of money and smoking weed and sleeping with his (yes, usually a “his”) student. And they think professors are all liberal and brainwashing their students to think that way.

Most good professors I know keep their political views out of the classroom, even in a political science class. It’s much more fun to ask the questions and challenge their assumptions (whether liberal or conservative or in-between) and see what they come up with. And the fun doubles when you get the ball rolling and then they all start to question each other. Just sit back and watch those minds unfold!

I think my parents had the idea that a college education would help us make more money (and statistically, that is so), and yet they never discouraged me from majoring in English. Twenty years after that, I hadn’t learned my lesson: I went back to get a master’s degree in writing!

Sometimes when students tell me they want to make more money, I smile and say, “Then go be a plumber or electrician or IT person.”

I can say this about myself: As someone with degrees in the humanities, I have never made a lot of money. But I have also, in forty years of working, never collected an unemployment check. I know how to think. I know how to cooperate and work with people. I can communicate effectively on the phone, in a meeting, or via email or paper. These are considered “soft skills” in the job market, but they have served me well. I have maintained two jobs during the pandemic.

So why am I here? To get an education and to provide an education. See, if we get an education just to get a good job and a good income, without taking the time to bring our enlightenment to others, we dishonor our hard work. The ancients like Socrates and Plato asked no less of teachers.

If you got an honest college education, you worked hard and you should carry that with pride for the rest of your life.

Don’t listen to those who berate your choice to go to college or try to diminish the college experience. They have no idea what it takes.

I am an author, freelance writer, and singer/songwriter. I split my time between Brooklyn, NY and my native Massachusetts. I teach at City College of New York.