How College Changed Me For the Better

I guess it makes sense given tuition inflation, but today, nearly every “is college worth it” discussion revolves around one consideration—roi—or “return on investment”. More and more people worry whether a college education will lead to more secure, higher paying jobs.

In the last week I’ve been changed for the better by a movie and two books that I probably wouldn’t have seen or read if my curiosity hadn’t been jumpstarted during college.

The movie, Wadja, was an engrossing window into what it’s like to be a woman in Saudi Arabia. Wadja has grossed $1,346,851 as of January 17th. That means few people are curious about what it’s like to be a woman in Saudi Arabia. Had I not attended college, where I learned to like learning about other people, places, and time periods, I doubt I would have sought out Wadja. I’m a more informed global citizen as a result of having watched Wadja.

The books were Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail and The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. Together, Cheryl Strayed and George Packer challenge my assumption that privileged people like me will never truly grasp what it’s like to teeter on the edge of economic destitution. Thanks to their story telling genius I have a much better feel for why some people struggle to feed, shelter, and clothe themselves. And more empathy, an attribute in shorty supply these days, for poor individuals and families.

I may not have been curious enough about the people’s lives in those books if three decades ago I hadn’t studied history in college and became keenly interested in other people, places, and time periods. Thanks to excellent professors, challenging readings, constant writing, and discussions with classmates and roommates, I became more curious, insightful, and empathetic.

How does one place a dollar value on that?

The Decade’s First Global News Story

Paul Collier in a January 17th Guardian story.

“Humanitarian crises around the world have shown that, while disaster response is often fast, effective and well-funded, reconstruction attracts fewer resources and, in many instances, fails to deliver an opportunity for a better future. Aceh, on the tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra and a region often taken as a model for focused development efforts after the 2004 tsunami, now faces new challenges as aid agencies reduce cash handouts and a lack of employment opportunities threatens stability.”

The media spotlight is shining brightly on Haiti just as it did Aceh in 2004. What are the odds that in six years, we will read that Haiti “now faces new challenges as aid agencies reduce cash handouts and a lack of employment opportunities threatens stability.”?

People’s recent generosity towards Haiti strikes me as odd given how little attention most people typically pay to desperately poor people and places.

In the medium and long-term, what impact can we expect an “ignore, give generously, and ignore again” style of philanthropy to make?

We need to commit to more serious and sustained global citizenship that rests on historical knowledge of colonialism, of specific places like Haiti, of globalization and neo-liberal economics, and less on one-off, media-inspired, charitable giving.

I would be more optimistic about Haiti’s future if people checked out books by Sachs, Collier, and other experts on global poverty and formed groups to debate the merits of their proposals for reducing global poverty.

If we don’t press our government to give more generously and intelligently, and we don’t consider changes in our own lifestyles, I can’t help but wonder if we give at times like this out of a sense of guilt.