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The pandemic shows us that everyone should go to college

While common ground between liberals and conservatives can be hard to find, employability seems to be one respite. I've spent a little time trying to coordinate with government agencies, but one thing I can say is that tying education to jobs is a message that resonates no matter which party is listening.

But the role of higher education in employability has been hotly debated in recent years. Perhaps the quintessential moment of this argument happened in 2012, when former Senator Rick Santorum stated that President Barack Obama was a "snob" for wanting everyone to go to college:

"President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob. There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to test that aren't taught by some liberal college professor that (tries) to indoctrinate them."

In fact, President Obama's statements had actually supported an array of post-secondary options:

"The jobs of the future are increasingly going to those with more than a high school degree. And I have to make a point here. When I speak about higher education, we’re not just talking about a four-year degree. We’re talking about somebody going to a community college and getting trained for that manufacturing job that now is requiring somebody walking through the door, handling a million-dollar piece of equipment.  And they can’t go in there unless they’ve got some basic training beyond what they received in high school. We all want Americans getting those jobs of the future. So we’re going to have to make sure that they’re getting the education that they need."

What's common among these statements is the presumption that, if nothing else, everyone should get enough education to obtain a good paying job. Sure there are some "highfalutin" intellectuals who can waste their time pursuing philosophy majors, studying art history, learning basket-weaving or [insert cliché about wasting time in college here] - doing all those things that a college education provides but most people can't seem to relate to everyday life.

Yet this horrible pandemic has provided ample examples of why a robust liberal arts education is necessary for everyone. A "good enough" education that applies to what most people see as the lowest common denominator (i.e., just get a good job) in our country simply won't suffice.

The pandemic has put forth raw data, biological phenomena, and ethical issues that have challenged our own understanding of what's happening, not to mention our dialogue about how to solve the problems we face. This wave of information demonstrates why everyone needs a higher education, one well-rounded in the liberal arts and not simply focused on improving employability, career trajectory, or earnings. Allow me first to extol a few of the skills that are included in such an education and how the pandemic has shed light on them.

Let's start with the basics

Given that I've spent my career working in higher education (a crowd that tends to slant liberal), and my free time playing golf (a crowd that tends to slant conservative), I'm generally exposed to a wide array of political and social opinions. A few months ago, during the early stages of the Covid-19 outbreak, I was texting with a conservative friend of mine who was accusing the media of over-hyping the situation.

As many were at the time, he was emphasizing that the flu had caused far more deaths than Covid-19. I, meanwhile, emphasized that this was due to increased awareness and testing of the flu, and that it was quite possible that Covid-19 was far more lethal, but we just weren't aware of it yet. He the proceeded to send me the following snippet of text that he pulled from the CDC website:

"So far, the new coronavirus, dubbed COVID-19, has led to more than 75,000 illnesses and 2,000 deaths, primarily in mainland China. But that's nothing compared with the flu, also called influenza. In the U.S. alone, the flu has already caused an estimated 26 million illnesses, 250,000 hospitalizations and 14,000 deaths this season."

From my perspective, this only proved my point: 14,000 out of 26 million is a mortality rate of .05% for the flu, while 2,000 out of 75,000 is a mortality rate of 2.7% for Covid-19. But as I tried to explain this to him, he continued to insist that the flu was more deadly. After some argument, I finally asked, "Look - I'm not trying to be mean here - but do you understand what a percentage is?"

Needless to say, quite the argument ensued, and I never got a direct answer to my question. But it became pretty clear to me that this person at the very least didn't know how to interpret these statistics, let alone apply that understanding to an evaluation of a public health scenario.

Projecting the burden on the healthcare system is a larger, more complex mathematical phenomena relevant to the pandemic. The challenge with projecting viral spread is that it happens at an exponential, rather than linear rate, which very quickly creates a burden on hospitals, public resources, etc.

Now, almost everyone has a problem with exponential thinking. Ray Kurzweil has talked about this in relation to predicting the growth of technology. But there's a classic riddle I remember from my childhood that's a good example of this: would you rather have $1 million, or one cent doubled every day for a month? (Here's an interesting blog post on the riddle and its origins.) For many, the large amount of $1,000,000 seems vast compared to the measly penny, but that's because we are not inherently inclined to think exponentially.

Many might argue (and I would agree) that understanding percentages is something we should master prior to college, but mathematical aspects such as exponential growth are a little more complex. The pandemic has shown that we all need an array of quantitative skills to understand what's happening in our every day lives - not just in our jobs - if we're going to make informed decisions about the media we consume, the policies we follow and support, and a host of other choices we make.

But these math and data skills aren't enough. The pandemic is just one example of how quantitative skills interact with a central focus of higher education: information literacy.

A little more advanced set of skills

Very recently, a friend posted a question to social media: If we've seen 100,000 deaths in the U.S. due to Covid-19, is it reasonable to look at the total number of deaths to see if it's increased by a similar amount?

"No... it's not," I replied.

While, mathematically, it might be reasonable to make such a comparison, a host of critical thinking and information literacy skills suggest to me it isn't. For one, there are about 40,000 vehicular fatalities every year, and with everyone driving less, there are likely fewer of those contributing to the overall total. What about less contact leading to lower transmission of other diseases like the flu? Are there fewer violent crimes because of less social interaction? Basically, with so many behavioral changes over the last few months, the comparison of an index such as the total number of deaths based on a single factor is really tricky, to say the least.

Whether it's comparing mortality rates of the flu and Covid-19 when testing numbers were limited, or considering the impact of Covid-19 among certain populations (e.g., nursing homes), the pandemic has gone beyond just looking at data to applying those data in complex situations. Deciding whether or not to lift various stay-at-home orders has been a complex exercise in looking at existing infection rates, projected exposure, and economic impact. With each of these factors, information comes from various sources and can be in quantitative or qualitative disagreement.

There's been some fascinating work recently, discussing how information literacy interacts with our political orientation to affect our decision making processes. This work on "digital polarization" is an excellent example of how higher education provides skills that are central to our lives, but not just about employability.

It's more than just data and information, though

Throughout the pandemic, the hardest question to tackle has always been, "what do we do next?" I've compared the pandemic to a cliffhanger ending to a season of your favorite TV show: You're very confused and don't know what to do next. You can go online and read theories about what has happened and will happen, but frankly the only way to know is wait nine months and see what happens next.

Amid all the conflicting data and opinions, the hardest "what's next?" issue has been around if/how/when to lift restrictions and, for lack of a better term, "open the economy again." There are several arguments around this issue, but one strikes me as particularly brow-raising: "Well, we can't just shut everything down because a few old or compromised people are going to die. That's just a part of life." Such statements have been repeatedly made by Texas Lt. Gov, Dan Patrick, as one example.

Sadly, for some, this is a cost/benefit analysis. What is the risk to human life vs. the cost of economic shut-down? Yet I'd argue that this is a remarkably complex problem. Not only does it rely on the appropriate application of the aforementioned quantitative and information literacy skills, but I believe it goes far beyond a cost/benefit analysis to a prime example of morals vs. ethics.

Whereas morals are one's beliefs about right and wrong, ethics are the application of those beliefs to situational decision making. As a classic example, one can morally believe that stealing is wrong, but ethically accept that stealing is permissible when necessary to feed one's family.

If you go beyond cost/benefit to morals and ethics, the decision about lifting restrictions is about a lot of ethical beliefs. Personally, I feel that many people who are pushing for a "reopening of the economy" are ethically deciding that the risk of others' lives is acceptable for their own financial gain. If that's not the definition of greed, I don't know what is. Now, if you'd like to disagree with me, I'm very open to that conversation, provided that you acknowledge the role of all these issues first. These aren't just questions of health and economics, they're questions of morals and ethics.

Fortunately, some institutions of higher education are taking this into account. My alma mater, James Madison University, has been leading the way in curriculum around "ethical decision making." Again, the morals/ethics distinction is key here, because JMU isn't "teaching what's right and wrong," but helping students identify their own moral values and apply those in practical situations. That's ethics, folks.


For quite some time, the Association of American Colleges and Universities has been promoting the value of a liberal arts education. They've published reports and surveyed employers on the importance of the skills many demean as unnecessary or even frivolous. I'd highly encourage you to check out their work as further evidence of the support of a broad, liberal education.

Their message has always been true, regardless of the issues facing our world. The pandemic is just the latest example of why such an education is important for everyone, not just the philosophically inclined or economically advantaged. At a time when social media has increased the rhetoric, dialogue, and animosity around every issue, we also face bigger challenges. It's vital that we all have the skills to not only understand these problems, but work together to find effective solutions.

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