What’s an education for? Philosopher Mark Kingwell analyzes our era’s market-utility responses to this question. He argues, however, that education is about making us better and more engaged citizens, perhaps even better people.

You might think judges would make diverting dinner companions, but I can tell you that on the whole they don’t. The judge sitting next to me, who shall go nameless, condemned all modern art as over-praised child’s play. She railed against graduated income tax. She told me I would outgrow my socialist tendencies (I’m 48). She left without contributing to the bill.

So I was not at all surprised when, after hearing what I did for a living, she said, “But what will your students do with that?”

There is a special intonation to this use of the verb “do”, familiar to anyone who has studied classics or considered a graduate degree in mathematics, with its long vowel of contempt honeyed over by apparent concern. When I was in my second post-graduate year, a woman in an Edinburgh bus queue delivered the best version I have so far encountered: “Philosophy! Really! Do you have any idea what you’ll do with that?” (Poor sod: useless and out to lunch!)

I could have told the judge something she ought to know already, which is that philosophystudents usually rock the LSAT. They get into prestigious law schools, even sometimes make it onto the bench. Statistically speaking, there is no better preparation for success in law than an undergraduate degree spent thinking about the nature of knowledge, the meaning of being and, especially, what makes a valid argument.

But even though this is itself a valid argument, it’s not a good one. I mean that its success concedes a greater failure; it gives away the game of justification to a base value. A degree in philosophy, or humane study more generally, does not require validation in the court of do-with usefulness. It is a convenient reality that such validation is sometimes gained, but the victory is really a surrender performed on the enemy’s ground.

What’s surprising is how many of today’s university administrators are rushing to do just this, hyping “competitiveness” and “pragmatism” of higher education. The annual higher education supplement published by Maclean’s, the Canadian weekly newsmagazine, is ground zero for the transactional reduction of learning. The latest version of the supplement included this representative claim from Robert Campbell, president of Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B. Parents of prospective students, he told a reporter, “are looking for a return on investment” in their child’s tuition.

And so professors are told that they need to justify their activities according to a market model of “research effectiveness”, where quantifiable “impact indicators” and “external research use values” can be totted up and scanned. Students respond by assuming a consumer stance to their own education, swapping tuition dollars not for the chance to interact with other minds but to acquire a post-graduate market advantage. When a 2010 survey of 12,500 students asked, “What was the single most important reason in your decision to attend university”, just nine per cent picked “a good general education” as their answer, while almost seventy per cent had enrolled to “get a good job” or “train for a specific career.”

Historically, median earning power for university graduates is indeed higher than that of college or high school grads, and over their lifetimes university graduates earn substantially more—seventy-five per cent by some estimates—than non-graduates. And yet, paradoxically, recent years have witnessed an avalanche of over-qualification. “[M]ore than a quarter of a million Canadian university students are about to graduate into the workforce this spring,” Maclean’s noted. “Yet studies show that fifty per cent of Canadian arts and science grads are working jobs that don’t require a university credential two years after graduation.”

All is not lost, however. “As the knowledge economy continues to grow—and manufacturing jobs disappear—there’s more demand for university grads in the workforce than ever.” Rest easy, parents. Pony up, students. There’s still a reason to get an education! It’s just not anything to do with education.

Call this familiar mixture of doom and market optimism the standard position. It can be summarized this way: university education must be judged according to its ultimate usefulness. That usefulness will be understood as career success of one sort or another, especially as measured by wealth. The position then adds the soft option: get a degree because the “knowledge economy” will otherwise crush you.

The soft option is favoured by presidents as well as university presidents. Barack Obama, speaking in March of this year, noted that America’s need to “remain competitive” was an argument for higher education: “If we want more good news on the jobs front then we’ve got to make more investments in education.” He offered no other arguments in its favour.

For all its currency as mentioned on top10forex.org, the standard position strikes me as wrong-headed, if not dangerous. It is a philistine position, obviously; it works to hollow out the critical possibilities of education. Holders of this position regard real humanistic education as a dispensable luxury of idiosyncratic and purely personal value, and that makes them, in turn, dangerous.

They are correct, however, that the standard position is now so deeply presupposed that even calling attention to it can be enough to brand one an ivory-tower wackjob, tilting at windmills. The 2011 Maclean’s authors noted with some satisfaction that nobody would nowadays express the indignation that greeted similar reductive accounts of education a decade ago, not apparently aware of the role Maclean’s and its consumer-style surveys have played in that reduction.

As far as I’m concerned the judge and all those in the standard-position camp are the enemy. They are not enemies of philosophy, or me, or my students; they are enemies of democracy, and insofar as we refuse to admit that—insofar as we soft-pedal the value of the humanities when confronted by a scale of value keyed only to wealth—we are not being serious about what democracy means. We are witnessing the regulatorycapture of universities under the general influence of a market model that can only be challenged by arguments rooted in another, human code of value.

Most defences of the humanities fall back on preaching to the choir: they assume the value of the very thing they need to defend, namely the cultivation of self and world that marks genuine study, what Aristotle called skholé, or leisure (hence the word “school”). At that point, there is usually a predictable spin-off into denunciations of elitism and counter-denunciations of its reverse-snobbery evil twin, anti-intellectualism. The net result is either an impasse or a trail into absurdity: witness the 2006 National Post reader poll which concluded that bombastic hockey commentator Don Cherry was the nation’s “most important public intellectual.”

But there’s no need to go through any of that, because the standard position is actually self-defeating.

Let’s do a little casual philosophical analysis. What are the unspoken premises of the standard position?

Most obviously, it assumes (1) that we know what use is. Something is useful when it has instrumental value. Things of instrumental value serve needs other than their own, either some higher instrumental value or an intrinsic value. And yet, in practice “use” almost always comes down to money, which is itself a perfect example of a lower instrumental value. Money is just a tool, but we talk and act as if it were an end in itself.

So the position likewise assumes (2) that we know how to value things that contribute to use. We can convert any activity or human possibility into some quantified assessment and, thus, dispose of the question of whether it is worth doing, Not only does this make a mockery of human action, quickly narrowing the scope of what is considered worth doing, it also simultaneously narrows the scope of argument about the nature of worth. This leads to a market monopoly on the notion of the “real”: anything that is not in play in a market is irrelevant or imaginary.

The position in turns presupposes (3) that education is in thrall to this “real world” of market value—actually a massive collective delusion as abstract as anything in Hegel’s Phenomenology —because according to (2) all human activities are. The market’s monopoly on reality reinforces the dominant value of competition and selfishness, incidentally converting education into a credential-race that can (and rationally should) be gamed rather than enjoyed in itself.

Lurking nearby are two other implicit ideas about life after graduation: (4) education must be intimately linked to work; and (5) doing work while “overqualified” is a bad thing. This link between education and work is a nifty piece of legerdemain which preys on the uncertainties all humans have about the future, even as it leaves untouched the general presumption that one must have a job to be human. Parents and children alike fall for it.

Finally, at least in the soft option, there is (6) the assumption that education can find its match in white-collar work of the knowledge economy and so justify doing a degree after all. This completes the regulatory capture of education. What was once considered a site of challenge to received ideas and bad argument, even to entrenched power and pooled wealth, is now not very successful adjunct to the pursuit of that power and wealth.

Unfortunately the facts do not bear this out, and this is where the entire arrangement collapses.

While the number of jobs asking for a degree has increased over the past two decades, the fact is that, since 1990 or so, the North American job market has not been characterized by a smooth rise in demand for cognitive skills to match growth in technology. Instead, there has been a hollowing out of the market’s middle, such that top-level jobs (creating technologies, playing markets, scoring touchdowns) have risen in overall wealth but not numbers, while low-end jobs (fixing pipes, driving semi-trailers, pouring lattes) have remained steady or grown slightly. In between, there is a significant depression of the very middle-class occupations that most university graduates imagine will be their return on investment.

The consequences of this economic reality are twofold. First, it explodes the assessment of education in terms of economic reality. There is no prospect of the competitive “knowledge economy” future to underwrite a decision to go to university. The soft option is gone.

Second, and more profoundly, the standard position now exhibits its full contradictions. If you cannot value education in terms of money, then education has no value. That means that, if you decide to pursue such an education, it has to be for reasons other than value. But that would mean doing something that has no use, and surely that is silly.

There is an ironic benefit to this collapse. Sure, some people will conclude that university is not for them: it doesn’t confer the market benefit it used to, so to hell with it. For others, though, the land beyond use might continue to beckon, a place where there is no easy decline into the disengagement of merely personal interests.

The standard position was founded on a paradox: university graduates are overqualified for the jobs they do, but you should still go because there is a statistical link between a degree and higher income. This is now replaced with a new paradox, the paradox of philosophy in the general sense: there is no use in pursuing a university education, but you should pursue it anyway because it’s the only way to see any use beyond what is everywhere assumed.

What does any of this have to do with democracy? Again, a twofold conclusion. First, wider university admission isn’t going to result in prosperity for everyone. If we want to have more equitable distributions of wealth and opportunity, we can’t rely on markets to do it, even or especially markets flooded with dazed graduates looking for work in a depression created, in part, by high flyers gaming the abstract markets. And, no, more business schools are not the answer.

Second, though, we actually need graduates more than ever precisely because democracy depends on a population of engaged, critical thinkers who have general humane knowledge of history, politics, culture, economics, and science, who are citizens and not consumers and who can see that there exist shared interests beyond their own desires. Once the link between higher education and work has been broken, the value of the humanities and non-applied sciences become clear. Education is not there to be converted into market value; it is there to make us better and more engaged citizens, maybe even better and more virtuous people. There, I said it! The entailed benefit is that these citizens are ones who will challenge the reduction of all consideration to the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Aristotle again: usefulness is not virtue. He meant to ask us each to consider how and why we come to value things, to consider them relevant, to think them worth doing. “What are you going to do with that?” asks the concerned fellow diner or transit passenger.

But as Socrates said, philosophy concerns no small thing, just the tricky matter of wondering how best to live. So the answer is: I’m already doing it. And you should be too.

Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto; he is at work on a book about the future of democracy.