Why we need a general education

I have noticed increasingly that today, there is increased pressure to educate people in a manner that results in immediate financial gain. This is known as “unreflective instrumentalism”.

It is a very serious problem in that it threatens education and public spending in research. I see an endless attack on majors that do not result in immediate prospects for high paying careers or because it does not result in something that can benefit society immediately.

One reason why I say that it threatens society is because of  unreflective instrumentalist ideology being a threat to “blue skies research”.  Sadly a good part of the public seems to accept this idea.  The problem is that blue skies research by the government is by nature, highly uncertain. One does not know what fields or areas will develop into anything in the future. That is the nature of blue skies research – if it were not revolutionary, it would not be called “blue skies”. There is also an element of risk that most private sector companies are not willing to undertake, largely because of investors demanding short to medium term returns on their investments. Particularly alarming is the “business approach” aimed at reducing the time between research and commercialization. A lot of important discoveries throughout the history of science have been entirely acts of serendipity. There is also the fact that blue skies research has the potential to give immense long term benefits.

However, it is education that I want to focus on for this post. A general education is attacked because it does not translate into assured career gains immediately, costs money for students and taxpayers, while the gains are more difficult to articulate.

The case for a general education

Students often do not like learning about something that is off topic. Conservatives attack it because of the costs to taxpayers and because it does not immediately translate into immediate benefits. There are other factions too that attack a general education for various reasons.

I particularly believe that a good understanding of history is important and greatly undervalued in our society. I think that one critique of our society is that we have repeated many of the mistakes of our past.

However, there are important reasons why a person needs it:

  1. It gives an overview of the world
  2. In a world of change, a general education leaves you better prepared
  3. When changes do happen, you are in a better position to make decisions
  4. A general education can lead to curiosity

An overview of the world

A general education gives you a basic overview of many topics. It is impossible for everyone to learn everything in this world. There is simply not enough  time, unless we make major advances in life extension technologies.

The point of a general education is not to learn everything. It is to have a basic understanding behind the concepts of everything. You can have an  understanding of how certain fields are organized, the “why” behind everything.

The other big point is that you may find yourself facing a problem outside of a field of your expertise. A general education gives you a basic understanding of that field and more importantly, it gives you an idea of where to look to begin solving your problems.

Preparations for the world of change

We keep hearing about the “knowledge economy”. I question whether we are truly in a “knowledge economy”, as I firmly believe that manufacturing still matters a great deal.

If we are in a world where skills are constantly being rendered obsolete, then a person who gets an education that focuses solely on those skills with relatively few other areas of focus will find themselves far more likely to be rendered obsolete by the ever-changing economy than a person who gets at least a partial general education. They will be able to more effectively adapt to changing trends, if not anticipate those trends altogether.  You may be able to take advantage of said trends.

Better decision making

When change does happen, there is a tendency to require rapid decision making.

A person is far more likely to make a good decision or at least an informed decision if they have a basic overview of the nature of the change than a person who has become hyper-specialized to purely getting a job with a high income.

It also lets you know what options you have and potentially the outcomes of the decisions because you are far more informed.

Curiosity and perhaps new possibilities

Perhaps most importantly, a general education opens up new areas for a person. That can spike curiosity and perhaps open up new areas where people want to explore their potential in.

I suspect that many of the critics of a general education are suffering from the Dunning Kruger effect. They don’t know what a general education can do so they don’t see it as a problem that people do not have a general education.



I am not saying that having a general education will solve all of society’s problems, but could be a huge step forward given the many difficulties that we seem to face as a modern society.  Many of our problems today are a result of apathy, ignorance, and arrogance, something that a general education could do a lot to address.

Probably the big gap is between those who want education, knowledge, and research to have immediate value (the “unreflective instrumentalism” faction) versus those who are more long-term oriented.

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