An Education Is More Than a Degree

It’s not uncommon for people thinking about education to place an emphasis on the end point, the degree. That’s not a real surprise, of course, since a degree does reflect something tangible and beneficial. However, this focus does lead to some troubling ways of thinking, ways of thinking that are more detrimental than they might seem at first glance.

1. “Cs get degrees”
2. Everyone deserves a college degree
3. Life starts after you graduate

I’ve encountered these lines of thinking numerous times as a teacher and an educator. And while each one of these has an element of truth to them, their overall implications are much more troubling. So let’s take a look at these three statements more closely. Considering this is the season when a new group of high school, college, and graduate school students reach out their hand to get that degree at the end of a course of study, it’s worth putting some thought into what an education actually means.

1. “Cs get degrees”
This is an amusing enough phrase, and it startled me and made me laugh the first time I heard it, considering I was a “gotta get an A or at least an A-” kind of student most of the time. And I have actually had to point out to students that an A- or a B+ isn’t going to sink their chances of getting into law/med/whatever grad school or dream job they want. Employers and graduate schools look at more than just your grades: more, they want to know what you have done and what you can do.

That said, this phrase creates some much more insidious thinking in a lot of different students. They say it in different ways, but they’re all hitting on the idea captured in this phrase. “Eh, I can slack off in this class, it’s not in my major.” “I kind of showed up to most classes and got some things in on time, so I should pass this course.” “Your class isn’t as important as my other ones.” And there are more ways to say it, believe me (I’ve heard those examples and more).

The response to any and all of the lines students can come up with in this train of thought? Bull. Yes, there are times where you have to prioritize between all the classes you are taking, as well as the jobs you might be working to pay for your college (I know all these things well), so I can understand when these conflicts of interest happen. But they happen all the time, with many students every semester. That’s not an occasional pile on of work that can happen to anyone, that’s a consistent pattern of thinking among many different students–a consistent pattern of thinking that devalues what is happening in the education process. How can it not? Rather than being outside of the norm, it becomes the norm to say any class or any effort just isn’t worth it.

How sad is that? Rather than education being a place where students train to be focused and work hard, it becomes a place to set in the worst of habits: phoning it in, procrastinating, not seeing the value of the work you are doing. From the frequent complaints about young workers you hear and see in the news (not to mention all the talk about lost twenty somethings), this line of habit is not uncommon.

So don’t let the simple line fool you. Yes, Cs technically can get degrees (and Cs are average work, not the bad thing that everyone cuts them out to be). But an education isn’t really about a grade or even a degree, but what you have learned in knowledge and in habits. We have grades and degrees as an attempt to show what we have learned, but they are imperfect. If you are going to be able to demonstrate what you can accomplish you have to look beyond the grade and the degree and value the work. Educators aren’t putting in those requirements because they’re evil and want to find ways to waste your time. That knowledge almost always has a value, especially if you go look for it.

And I can say that as a student who has had to sit through the occasional, seemingly pointless class. There are classes like that out there, but if you go into every class thinking they’re going to be like that, you’re right back at “Cs get degrees.” If you try to make yourself and/or your class average, it’s going to be average.

I think we’ll save the last two points for upcoming blog posts.