In his Nov. 23 Sunday Opinion commentary, “Thinking too highly of higher ed,” Peter Thiel set up several straw-man rationales for the value of higher education. Each of these was based in a purely market-based philosophy: Perhaps education is an investment in one’s future career; or maybe it is about consumption, or a competition of sorts. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Thiel then took down each one of these straw men, thus questioning the ultimate value of higher education and the president’s assertion that it is of value for all Americans.
Mr. Thiel failed to consider that there are other reasons for higher education, particularly in a democracy. Especially in the liberal arts tradition, education is not thought of exclusively as job preparation. The core skills and values of independent thought, critical thinking, research and analysis are applicable to citizens in ways that transcend career or economics. Human beings ought to be not only economic decision-makers but also citizens in an active polity and contributors to a vibrant culture.
To the extent that Mr. Thiel is suggesting that higher education does not always live up to these ideals, I agree. To the presumption that it should be evaluated solely on economic utility, I disagree wholeheartedly.
(published in The Washington Post.)