College Educations: Transforming Society
There is a quote often attributed to Thomas Jefferson that goes something like "An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people." The actuality is that Mr. Jefferson apparently never said those exact words. However, it a perverse way the fact that I know he did note use those words and the fact that I know he actually wrote in a letter to Charles Yancey an argument for public education, including university. The exact words about democracy and education were, “if a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was & never will be.” Moreover, it is not that I ever knew this quote from my education.
Rather, this is an example of the outcome of my university education. My professor insisted that I needed to be curious and skeptical. It was impressed upon me to seek out the source of knowledge myself and not rely on others opinions or conjectures. Further, I was educated on how to conduct that original research such that I could find the original letter to Mr. Yancey from Mr. Jefferson and read the quote and the context. This letter is an interesting read as are most of Mr. Jefferson’s letters but that is an aside.
Now I need to be clear, I was not a history major though I am a history buff. I was not a Political Science major either though I took the LSAT for fun one time. Nope, I was a statistics major. However, I received the basics of a liberal arts education that formed the foundation of my critical thinking skills as well as my research skills. To Mr. Jefferson, this training was essential for democracy otherwise, any government’s propensity was to erode the liberty and property of the people. Therefore, that alone might seem enough ‘value’ of college education to society. However, I would argue there is more.
An economic impact and multiplier develops from college education on the macro level. The evidence seems compelling. In 2003, Sianesi and Reenen concluded in their article in the Journal of Economic Surveys, that each year of University education increased overall GDP by 3 to 6% but also increased the rate of growth in GDP in the United Kingdom. The research has built on these findings to conclude that it is not just attendance but the quality of the education that leads to the “strong evidence that the cognitive skills of the population - rather than mere school attainment - are powerfully related to individual earnings, to the distribution of income, and to economic growth.” Page 1 (2008) Hanushek and Woessmann, World Bank Working Paper 4122. These are just two of literally hundreds of papers that empirically demonstrate that college or university education accelerates economic development.
It is apparent that University educations transform the individual and through the individual their society. For over 200 years, the foundation of democracy has had education as a pillar. In addition, for almost as long, the innovation and drive that lead to economic prosperity has come from the same source. In the next post, we begin looking at the actual mechanisms that leads to a university education.