Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The cost of education

My sons are both Art Sci's. That means that one is a grad and the other is a student in a program at McMaster University designed to allow a select group of students to explore what it means to adopt different models of thinking. Grads of this program typically go on to further education, so it's not surprising that the cost of education - and who bears that cost - comes up often in one form or another.

I forget who it was who said, "If you think education is expensive, try the alternative."

Education is expensive. Learning is a resource-intense activity that requires all of our attention and energy and, quite often, also our money and other stuff. It's also a wasteful process: we can spend hours learning something that we may have to unlearn just weeks or months later. It's hard to tell what will be useful until after you have spent time and effort and attention on learning it.

My sons were dismissive tonight when I said that part of the cost of education is an opportunity cost. When you decide to go to university (I was there for 11 years), you give up all the learning you might have done - and the money you might have made - if you had made different choices.

The advantage of short, intensive, targeted learning is that while its cost might be high, its opportunity cost is relatively low. When I take a course for a weekend (as I will next month), I give up one weekend. It could be a weekend when I might otherwise be training others, but it's probably a weekend of getting the laundry done. The laundry will get done anyway (there will be less of it since I will be packing light to fly to the States).

The cost of the internet is the inverse - there is very little upfront cost but since I spend hours and hours searching for information that I may or may not learn and may or may not feel helpful - those hours are gone and the value I got in exchange is hard to determine. That doesn't mean that I should not be reading and writing on the web. It does mean that there is no free lunch when it comes to education.

Education requires resources, mental energy and attention. In return, it promises nothing - except that your brain will be active and engaged (and therefore healthy) and that your relationship with yourself and the world will be different because you have learned something. Sometimes, you will wonder if you got a good exchange for your efforts.

The hidden cost of education is that it gives us choices - and makes us responsible for the choices we make.

Education is expensive. But it is also rich and deep and better than the alternatives.

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