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The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Is the Accessibility of Modern Education a Problem? Should Everyone Gain a Degree?

the unbearable lightness of being

by Steven Sloan (USA)

H. L. Mencken, a famous American essayist, journalist and satirist, wrote that “the aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality” (1924).

The contemporary systems of massive education all around the world are based on common principles: to enable each individual to reach their full potential and create educated citizens who will contribute towards a more advanced society. I am not trying to defy the benefits of today’s flexible college education. Everyone who wants to learn should be able to achieve their goals and gain a degree that will enable them to practice the profession they aim for. However, we cannot deny the fact that today’s common values are creating an enormous pressure to students who don’t need college degrees to follow their dreams. When such individuals enter the institutionalized educational system, their idealistic personalities are slowly being shaped to fit into the conformist standards of mediocrity.

Nearly every high-school student is being pressured to go to college and naively believes in the generally acknowledged notion that liberal access to education is one of the greatest civilizational achievements. Young people believe that they won’t be able to get a good job if they don’t obtain a Bachelor’s degree. Alternatives to college education, such as music, art and dance schools, trade schools, cosmetician programs or auto repair schools are considered to be inferior to “real” education that high school graduates are being pushed towards.

Back in 1852 and 1917, when Massachusetts and Mississippi made schooling compulsory, the focus of career readiness was job training that took the form of vocational education. Today’s colleges enable students to explore many opportunities until they find their focus. The truth is: those students who go to college without a clear goal rarely end up being career ready when they receive the Bachelor’s degree.

The biggest issue in the U.S. educational standards is that they do not teach students to seek a deeper meaning in their role in society. Not everyone is meant to be an academic. We all have individual goals and preferences that are being suffocated when we enter college just because our interests do not fit into the popular belief that we are not reaching our fullest potential unless we continue educating ourselves.

When I finished high school, I had a clear goal of what I wanted to be: an owner of a tea room. Instead of following my own plans and goals, I decided to do what my parents wished: allowed them to spend thousands of dollars so I could get an education that didn’t teach me anything new. I focused on economy and management courses throughout college, but also had to deal with history, literature, chemistry, philosophy, and endless paper writing that had nothing to do with career readiness. After getting my Bachelor’s degree, I had to think about repaying debts; investing in a business was not possible at this point. Three years later, I am still stuck with a mediocre job that is inhibiting my real potential.

I am going to use Kundera’s term to define my years in college: “unbearable lightness of being”. The student has few responsibilities: study what you have to, write papers on pre-set topics, choose courses from few available options, and you’ll get the degree. Then what? Not many students think about building character and ideals throughout college... they have too much coursework to be bothering about that.

Every high-school graduate has a distinct pathway that may or may not be determined yet. Students who would love to explore new opportunities and continue with their education further should be encouraged and supported to achieve those goals. However, we should all understand that not all skills, abilities and knowledge a certain profession requires can be obtained at college.

Mass education may seem like a final realization of the principles of the Age of Reason – creating citizens that are broadly educated in different niches. However, with today’s boundaries imposed by expectations and the unrealistic perception of college education, the fundamentals of this classic theory turn against themselves. A flexible individual with clear interests and life goals should develop cognitive abilities in correlation with those aims.

Theodor Adorno’s Theory of Half Education (1959) reflects the reality of today’s education: the spiritual purpose of learning, which should be focused on the personal character, is being superficially adapted to social requirements. In a system that imposes a constant conflict between one’s individual interests and the need to adapt to the standards of our society, the college education is not necessarily useful for all high school graduates. The true interests of the subjects of education should never be ignored for the sake of commonly accepted standards.

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