The graduate: What’s wrong with learning for learning’s sake?

Sat, Feb 15, 2014, 01:00

What is so bad about learning for learning’s sake? Education is a joy when you challenge, question and stretch your brain beyond its limits and see what it can do. As a recent graduate of European studies I can now appreciate that this was the best part of college: having the time and space in which to expand your mind.

There is a creeping disdain for the idea of learning for its own sake. Since the economic crisis, everything is focused on applicable skills and job-readiness. We arts graduates are well used to the “Would you like fries with that?” line, with its implication that reading literature for four years does not make you a dream employee. But we have unacknowledged strengths: we have been trained to think freely and critically.

This training in critical thought is becoming less and less valued. Irish universities now seem to focus more on the employability of their graduates than on their intellectual curiosity. Of course students are concerned about their job prospects, but employability should be a byproduct of education, not its main goal.

If students are merely there to serve the job market, then free academic inquiry is just a waste of time. We must balance the need to train people with the need to nurture and value learning for learning’s sake.

Throughout my degree, people assured me that languages would look good on my CV. All those multinational companies we have welcomed to Ireland in recent years are looking for language graduates, so isn’t it great to have the French and Spanish?

But the prospect of a job at Facebook or Google was by no means the most rewarding part of studying languages. Getting to grips with unfamiliar vocabulary and grammar begins a lifelong educational journey, offering you the chance to travel and so discover new countries, customs and cultures. My Erasmus year abroad probably did improve my employability, but I didn’t do it to beef up my LinkedIn profile.

Unfortunately, Irish universities do not seem to have realised this. They are following their UK and US counterparts down a path of increasing commercialisation.

Prospective students shop around for courses, making choices based on a university’s brand name or place in arbitrary world rankings. And those who can afford the €2,500 “contribution” question whether they are getting value for money, as if an education is something credited to your account once you hand over the fees.

These and other issues form the basis of the recently launched Defend the University campaign. Its 10-point charter is a useful reminder of what the role of a university should be: a public good, aiming to protect free thought, disseminate knowledge and pursue truth for the improvement of society.

As with many young people in Ireland, it takes a lot to get me on the streets in protest. My student-activist muscles are mostly flabby and unused; too weak to hold up a picket sign, too stiff to march.

I was one of only two students who attended the Defend the University charter launch, but we both agreed that this campaign should resonate with young people. Those who truly value their education must speak out as they see Irish universities betraying their founding principles.