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Friday, March 1, 2024
The Observer

What is the purpose of education?

Recently in one of my classes, this was a question that came up tangentially to the topic we were discussing. We had just read a lecture that discussed education and a worldview as divided into “Two Cultures”: one defined by scientific intellectuals and another defined by literary intellectuals.

And as another academic term gets underway — and a new crop of first years navigate all the opportunities available to them while upperclassmen simultaneously plan for life after Notre Dame — that question rings as loudly as ever.

During that discussion, we realized that the more knowledge we have accumulated as a society, the more specialized education has become over time. The question thus became whether that specialization is a positive or negative for education.

As this was a discussion in a Program of Liberal Studies (PLS) class, it should come as no surprise that many felt a broader education was more beneficial for the individual. Such an education offers a basic understanding of various fields of study that enables the individual to communicate with those fields.

But there are just as many students on campus who seemingly have the rest of their lives figured out — or, at least, know exactly what they want to study and what career they want to pursue. They fairly question the point of them having to take classes for university requirements that they, quite frankly, couldn’t care less about and, consequently, get nothing out of.

“If I know what I want to do, why am I not allowed to focus on just those classes that will get me where I want to go?” one of my roommates said last year.

Which brings us back to that overarching question: What is the purpose of education?

Is there even a right answer to that question?

Far too often, education is seen as just another step in the process towards the future. Too many students think that what you do outside of class defines your college experience, but everything you do in the classroom is just another rung on the ladder towards success that needs to be climbed. And regardless of whether you study the “practical” or the “abstract,” your education has to be justified either by what job it will lead to or what skills it will help you develop.

But why should the purpose of education be restricted to just that?

Your experiences inside the classroom are just as formative for your life as those outside of it are. They will shape the way you think about the world and your place in it. That’s true regardless of whether you study chemistry, accounting, architecture or PLS.

Your education won’t just define your college experience. It will play a major role in defining the rest of your life.

So why would waste your time studying something you don’t love?

Don’t pick a major simply because it’s the major everyone that goes into the field you want to enter studies. Pick it because you love walking into those classes each and every day. Pick it because you get to surround yourself with people who have entirely different experiences but share your passion for that topic.

Pick it because you wouldn’t have it any other way.

After all, that might just be the true purpose of an education: forming you into the person you want to be, regardless of who that person is.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.