“Learning by Degrees” is an essay written by Rebecca Mead. The essay discusses the value and perception of higher education in contemporary society. It was published in the New Yorker in 2005.
Rebecca Mead explores the concept of pursuing a college education and the evolving attitudes toward it. She examines how college has become increasingly seen as a means to an end—primarily a pathway to better job prospects and higher earning potential—rather than an institution dedicated to intellectual growth and personal development.
The title, “Learning by Degrees,” plays on the dual meaning of “degrees.” On one hand, it refers to the academic degrees conferred by institutions, while on the other, it suggests the gradual process of learning and acquiring knowledge.
Mead touches on several themes in the essay:
Commercialization of Education: The essay discusses how colleges and universities have adopted marketing strategies to attract students and compete for enrollments. The focus on branding, amenities, and job placement rates has led to a shift in priorities, emphasizing a transactional approach to education.
Economic Motivations: Mead highlights the growing pressure on students to choose fields of study that promise high earning potential after graduation. This can lead to students pursuing majors based on financial considerations rather than their true interests or passions.
Intellectual Curiosity vs. Practicality: The essay delves into the tension between the traditional ideals of education centered on critical thinking and exploration of ideas, versus the more pragmatic goal of preparing students for specific careers.
Credentialism: Mead explores the idea that higher education has become more about obtaining a credential (a degree) than genuinely engaging in the pursuit of knowledge. She raises questions about whether the degree itself is becoming more important than the education it represents.
Class and Access: The essay touches on issues of access to higher education, noting that elite institutions often hold a certain allure, while community colleges and other less prestigious schools may be seen as less desirable. This can perpetuate social and economic inequalities.
Personal Growth: Despite the commercialization and economic pressures, the essay also emphasizes the potential for personal growth and intellectual enrichment that a college education can provide, regardless of one’s eventual career path.
“Learning by Degrees” contributes to the ongoing discourse about the role and purpose of higher education in modern society. It raises important questions about the balance between practicality and intellectual exploration, the impact of economic considerations, and the evolving meaning of a college degree.