A higher purpose to higher education?
AS THE cost of higher education rises, it has prompted debate on whether a university degree is vital for success, which most people take to mean earning higher incomes ("University degree 'not vital for success'"; May 5).
Before we discourage higher education because of its unfavourable cost-benefit ratio, we should heed the words of former Harvard University president Derek Bok, who said: "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance."
Singaporeans who ask if a degree is vital for success really want to know if it enables them to earn more.
However, is there a higher purpose to higher education? Something more lofty than equipping people to earn a better income? If there were no pecuniary advantage in a degree, would anyone still enrol in university?
The raison d'etre of a university is to impart knowledge and be a place for a community of scholars and students to enjoy the freedom to push the frontiers of knowledge. In this context, knowledge can be utilitarian in nature or entail learning for its own sake.
Knowledge often leads to new innovations that improve people's lives and the environment. Pecuniary benefits from spin-offs and start-ups from these innovations boost the economy.
However, monetary gains should be regarded as the fringe benefit of acquiring knowledge.
Is there any merit in learning a subject simply because it is interesting?
Acquiring knowledge trains the mind in critical analysis and synthesis, and creates a "prepared mind".
The prepared mind is primed to recognise the "eureka moment" when it comes and, in the words of microbiologist Louis Pasteur, "chance favours a prepared mind".
A prepared mind is important because many life-changing discoveries are of a serendipitous nature. Arcane subjects like quantum theory, studied for no other reason than that it is cerebrally stimulating, culminated in the World Wide Web.
What about knowledge that is totally "useless"?
When British author J.K. Rowling signed up to study Greek mythology, she was told by family and friends that the subject had zero relevance to life and would not help her earn a living. But her Harry Potter books, 450 million copies of which have been sold, drew heavily on her knowledge of Greek mythology.
Whether higher education is vital for success depends on the definition of success, but it sure is vital for life.
Wong Mun Tat (Dr)