It’s all but impossible to calculate the finite value of an education. At my middle-class high school in Michigan, one of the biggest pitches that teachers and administrators made to try and convince more of my peers to attend college relied purely on economics.

“College grads make more,” they said.

While that may typically be true, the fluctuating economy and subsequent job market doesn’t make attending a four-year university a sure bet. Laying thousands of dollars on the table just to get a job can even seem paradoxical. Borrow money to pay for school, get a job, profit. Then pay the money back.

But universities shouldn’t be seen as manufacturers of employees. Students shouldn’t look back after graduation and weigh the cost of a college against the job prospects they were able to line up by their first month as an alum.

Education benefits society as a whole. No one’s chances of finding a job would improve if everyone in America held a bachelor’s degree, but the way our country would operate culturally and politically would transform and for the better.

For example, Pamela Brandwein, a political science professor here at the University, wrote a book on reinterpreting Reconstruction-era politics and history after the Civil War. Some of her work has been especially relevant this year.

After the Charleston church shooting in June, the nation entered a discussion about the Confederate flag. South Carolina lawmakers, and the nation, debated the flag’s meaning; one side claiming it as a symbol of Southern heritage, while others passionately bemoaned against the state’s use of a flag that stood for a nation founded upon acute racism and slavery.

In a resoundingly American fashion, we couldn’t even agree on what the ol’ stars and bars represent. The Civil War has been over for nearly one and a half centuries, but we haven’t been able to reach a consensus on what it was about.  

I remember being taught (shout out public school) that the Civil War was about slavery. I also remember being taught that this was too simple of a summation, that slavery was the big issue, but really state’s rights were what was on the line for the Confederacy.

And then I entered Brandwein’s class, and I re-learned two things. First, yes the Civil War was indeed fought over slavery, period. The prevailing sentiment in the South was that slavery was an institution of the utmost importance because the unlimited source of free labor was supposed to be the cornerstone upon which a Southern utopia (for white folks) was built.

Secondly, political forces have the power to reshape history and affect our cultural understanding of it for decades and generations to come. After the Civil War, the loudest and most boisterous pro-slavery guys recognized a sinking ship when they were standing on it and began the line of rhetoric about states’ rights as the cause for the war. Unfortunately, they were successful, and this incorrect interpretation of history still exists around high school classrooms and water coolers today.

Thanks, professor, for clearing that up.

Brandwein isn’t the first scholar, historian or journalist to pin down the truth about slavery and the Civil War. But in the public, we still see its significance as something that’s up for debate. To drive a point home, anyone who believes the Civil War wasn’t a war about slavery is wrong. But the truth, though made relatively accessible to undergraduates here and at other universities, isn’t as easy to come across in the real world.

Society has entered full-force into the information age, and everyone is surrounded by accessible data. While there’s a lot of good that comes from this, there are now more channels than ever to launch a marketing campaign to sway public opinion. The ability of self-interested actors to control what story gets told in the newspapers and on TV has made it incredibly difficult to find out what is really going on.

Pick an issue: Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, Detroit’s bankruptcy — it doesn’t matter. Each person and each news outlet frames things differently. And there have been countless cases where powerful people have lied to the public with their own motives in mind.  

“I am not a crook,” said Richard Nixon.

Even with the brightest minds examining an event, like with the Civil War example, lies and political spin can slip past American common sense and become, for better or, more often, worse, part of what we accept as fact. We then carry on with an incorrect understanding of what is true and what happened.

Knowing this, the high volume of lies and political pandering should cause anyone from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Ore., to think more critically about the information they consume.

In an educated society, we would all have the skills to at least do this. Making more people college graduates benefits the greater good. A college education exposes each person to perspectives, ideas and concepts they otherwise may not have stumbled upon. Students absorb all of this information and take it with them to parties, coffee shops and, eventually, society in some form or another.

In a time where privilege is defined by access to opportunity, being educated turns over a blank page for new ideas and ways of thinking. If more people had access to education, it could aid in turning the echo chamber of social media unoriginality, bias and uninformed public opinion into something more symphonic. And more importantly, it undercuts the ability of politicians and billionaires to sell their own versions of history and manipulate the masses into acting or believing certain ways.

Above all else, receiving an education may not get you a job, but it can provide some direction amid all the chaos and half the production of lemmings (the video game people, not the animals). Because as the late, great Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll wind up someplace else.” 

Tyler Scott can be reached at tylscott@umich.edu.

 

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