Sociology? What a Waste of an Education!

Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I like to listen to CBC radio when I drive. I like the mixture of arts, culture, politics, music and just general blather. Makes me feel like I am right up there on current events and in keeping up with what is “now”.

Recently, as I was driving, while listening to one of the phone-in shows on the “student protests in Quebec” I was struck by a sub-theme of some of the callers: What is the value of an education?

Maybe I should take  a couple of steps back and give the 30-second explanation of the student protest that have been happening in Quebec. Basically the Quebec government is trying to reduce their deficit – and so has proposed increasing the portion that students pay towards post-secondary education. The tuition increase proposal has generated a rather large back-lash from the students and other members of Quebec society that view education as an “obligation” of a just and democratic society. This is based on the ideals espoused by thinkers like Thomas Jefferson who said, “I know, [there is] no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of society, but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”

Building off the thoughts of Jefferson, and others, the movement in Quebec has focused discussion on the value of “higher” education. And on who “pays” for that education. If an educated society is critical to a successful democracy – then should not that education be affordable and accessible to all members of society?  I would guess that probably a majority of our society will agree that some type of post-secondary education is important and even necessary. Where a major division seems to arise is the discussion on the “utility” of that education.

A sub-text of that discussion becomes “if society pays for an education – then society should decide what you choose to learn.” In other words – we as taxpayers must realize some return on our investment in your education. And as part of that return on investment, society should have an expectation that you will get a good job as a result of your education – and in turn pay taxes.

The danger here is we value education not for knowledge and for learning how to ask questions and for learning to critically think – but for the economic measurable it provides. Thus an “applied education” is the best type of higher education. While “applied education” is useful and often leads to employment, “applied education” tends not to be very creative or adaptable to change. On the flip side education that is focused on the “theoretical” tends to be highly adaptable and creative and not so immediately employable. (Yes those are both generalizations – however that is where the call-in show was headed…)

So getting back to the call-in show, and what has sparked my little ramble. One caller made this comment: ‘These protesters are lazy and need to get real jobs! Why should I pay for their education? That student you had on is studying sociology! My god – what is the point of sociology? That isn’t a real education! People just need to use their common sense and do something real with their lives.’ (Now that isn’t an exact quote as I was driving!)

The caller went on further dismissing Political Science and Anthropology as legitimate areas of study. Basically with the same point: it is an expensive education for something that most of society really does not care about. Those subjects are all theory and thinking – and have little application or utility in an economic sense. And really why study what is just “common sense”?

When he said “common sense” my brain went a-ha! In my experience of the world people who invoke “common sense” dislike social sciences because those disciplines dare to question “common sense.” In fact I would argue those disciplines not only question – they also dare to analyze and measure the utility of “common sense.”

I am not a Sociologist so my understanding of Sociology as a discipline may need to be refined. Sociology examines society using a number of empirical investigative and critical analysis techniques. Sociology attempts to develop an understanding of the way groups of humans interact and behave, and to gain an understanding of how social processes develop and evolve.

Common sense might say that an individual is poor because they are too lazy to get a good job. If that individual would only apply their abilities and talents they would be rewarded and would be a successful, productive member of society. Sociology would examine why that individual is living in poverty, look at how society is helping or hindering; take time to examine the laws, culture, institutions, and other parts of society that surround that individual.  And that data may suggest “social policy” that we can enact to help people out of poverty.

People that want us to rely on “common sense” dislike sociology because sociology dares to measure what “common sense” says is the truth. Sometimes sociology will affirm “common sense” – to which the response will be “what a waste of time and money to learn what we already knew was true.” Or worse it will contradict “common sense” – to which the response is “what a waste of time and money to come up with a flawed study!”

At the end of this ramble I am not certain I have any conclusions to offer. Simply my observations. I believe that higher education is an important part of a successful and fully functioning democratic society. Knowledge is power. And an important part of obtaining knowledge is knowing how to ask questions. If we only focus on “applied” knowledge we become focused on the “how” of the world – and we lose sight of the “why?”. And more importantly the “why not?”. I don’t want to be stuck in a world where the norm is: “I know what I know – don’t confuse me with the facts!”

And so I will leave you the reader with one interesting thought. In a North American consumer society that is focused on economic utility – we rely on a field of study called Economics. Economics it seems is an off-shoot of Sociology with many common roots and connections. So what is the point of Sociology? One might as well ask what is the point of thinking?


English: the log of the political part the com...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

9 thoughts on “Sociology? What a Waste of an Education!

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  3. Being one of my degrees is in Sociology, I can say, it truly was a waste if it was meant to secure employment. I however had other reasons for pursuing it.


  4. I “liked” this because you took a stand and voiced a concerned opinion about our society. I did have trouble deciphering some of it because I am not antiquated with the protest details.
    Thinking that we agree on this…I believe that “common sense” is a lost art. In the US, entitlement has overtaken the desire to earn a living in some groups of people. Others will find themselves working the rest of their lives, into their 80s because of necessity….in my opinion, paying for entitlements, has taken any comforts of old age away from a large number of elderly.
    Thanks for the thought provoking post.
    Siggi in Downeast Maine, USA


    • Thank you for reading and for your thoughtful comments. There are all sorts of complex issues at play well beyond my wisdom. All I know is we have to do better – and we need to think outside the box and encourage creativity. What has always been our strong point in North America is that we not only as “why” we more importantly ask “why not?”


      • First off…spell check or my typing got me…acquainted not antiquated !
        My personal opinion is that neither “why” or “why not” aren’t being asked enough…nor “how can this be better?” I think that, again my personal opinion, is that many of the degrees have been “dumbed down”…too easy to obtain. The amount of time some students have off and need to be off campus for a “break” astounds me. To me, this takes away from the hard earned degrees of many.
        I don’t think I’ve put this well. Maybe you do understand my thinking…I am old enough to remember “back in the day” which isn’t a fair comparison at all.
        Thanks for the comments.
        Siggi in Downeast Maine, USA


  5. Interesting point, although the reason I don’t like the social sciences is that they’ve given in to the idea that uselessness = worthlessness, and they’ve tried to distance themselves from the icky useless humanities by putting ‘science’ in their name, as if that actually makes what they do science. It doesn’t.

    Don’t get me wrong, science is all well & good & very important, both the applied versions and the not-so-applied versions. This is a point that hardly needs defending. However, we are toiling under the mistaken notion that the only knowledge and skills worth fostering are those we can, say, build a bridge with.

    We need to come out strong in defending our humanities from the tyranny of the bridge builders.


    • You will have to explain what you mean by “uselessness=worthlessness”? What are you defining as useless or worthless?
      And I would argue that science is simply a systematic approach to organizing information using testable hypothesis as the primary method for building theories and for understanding of what is being studied. When one understands that “science” is actually just a methodology that changes ones perspective on even things like chemistry and biology. The reality is even a natural science such as biology is not a “science”. Biology is the study of life and living organisms that uses the scientific method – and also encompasses other methodologies that are not so science based. So in the end the division of knowledge into science vs social science vs humanities vs arts is all semantics…what is in a name? an ology by any other name is still a sorting hat.


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