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)