“When am I ever going to use this stuff?” Every teacher has heard that countless times. Once in a while a student will ask that question and I always say the same thing: “Likely never, but that’s not the point.” Usually, they stare at me dumbfounded.
It’s true though isn’t it? When will they need to know how to factor a polynomial, or name the third president of the United States, or write the chemical formula for hydrochloric acid from memory? Likely never! But as I said, that’s not the point. We can’t blame students for wondering because we sure do spend a pile of time asking them to memorize stuff and recite it back to us. I think back to my early days of teaching and shudder when I recognize how much of what I wanted students to do was simple memorization. A typical lesson plan found me standing at the front talking while the students sat in rows trying to copy down what I was saying. A typical evaluation had them all sitting quietly for an hour answering test questions that demonstrated how well they had memorized a bunch of terms and definitions. It’s embarrassing really.
We’ve allowed public education to be a collection of facts to be memorized and assessment to be based on recall and low level thinking skills. Students are understandably tired of it and, frankly, so am I. How can we ever be surprised when students struggle to see the relevance of the curriculum? Most of the time I do too.
That brings us back to our question: why be educated? Well for one, with education comes higher earning potential. The United States Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics released some telling data (http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_chart_001.htm) in 2011 showing the dramatic difference education makes in weekly earnings and unemployment rate (check out the figure). They show that unemployment rates vary inversely with education while earning potential varies directly with it.
The Center for Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University reports that people holding bachelor’s degrees earn about $2.27 million over their lifetime, while those with master’s, doctoral, and professional degrees earn $2.67 million, $3.25 million, and $3.65 million, respectively. By comparison, having some college or university education will earn you $1.55 million in lifetime earnings while a high school diploma earns you $1.3 million in your lifetime. What does this tell us? All other things being equal and no matter what your field of study, simply earning a four-year degree makes a big contribution to financial success in life. You can read the report at http://cew.georgetown.edu/collegepayoff/.
Education can’t be the only way can it? To answer that, just check out the Forbes list (http://www.forbes.com/wealth/celebrities/list ) of wealthy celebrities. While some of them do have an education, many do not. With her bachelor’s degree Oprah earned $315 M between June, 2009 and June 2010 and has accumulated a net worth of $2.7 B. Lady Gaga dropped out of New York University and at 25 years old she earns about $90 M a year. At just a year older, LeBron James earns $48 M a year and he never even started university or college. We certainly can’t point to education in the case of Justin Bieber. Although his career prevents him from attending, he chose to continue high school with the help of a tutor but is at least “thinking” about going to college. At 17 he earns $53 M per year. Then again, he’s Canadian so maybe that’s his secret.
In fairness, Stefani (aka Lady Gaga), LeBron, and Justin may be poor examples because those three are exceptionally talented (you might argue about the later). We can’t expect many of our students to be able to follow that path. Ryan Seacrest has demonstrated that you don’t need talent or education to make money. The 36 year old University of Georgia dropout earns $61 M every year for doing . . . well, I’m not sure what he does. Finally, Charlie Sheen is a beacon of hope for every student who struggles with attendance, academics, or *ahem* self-medication. He was expelled from Santa Monica High School for poor grades and attendance a few weeks before graduation and never looked back. He now earns $45 M a year despite his ongoing battles with drugs and alcohol.
Celebrity, winning the lottery or inventing the iPad can certainly lead to great wealth but for most of us the best, most reliable, sure-fire way of increasing our financial success is to get an education and to get as much of it as we can. If you’re like me, you find equating the value of education with the ability to earn more money pretty depressing. I mean, I’m a teacher so you know I didn’t choose my career for the money. There must be something inherently valuable about education isn’t there? Why do teachers spend so much effort trying to reach students? Why do we get so invested in our student’s success? Why are we so passionate about our own subject? Why spend so many hours volunteering with extra-curricular activities? It can’t be to help students earn more money or simply to earn money ourselves. Next week, I’ll share what I think is the inherent value of education and why I value it.
What do you think? Should money be a motivator to pursue education?