Where’s My Diploma?

Posted by

Jeffrey Thayne

We habitually consider the university to be an institution of higher learning, that is, a place where students go to learn. Let’s imagine for a moment a university at which the quality of instruction surpasses every other school. At this imaginary university, you could learn anything you wanted to know better than at any other school. Another unique aspect of this school, however, is that it doesn’t award any diploma upon completion of the curriculum. The sole benefit it provides for your well-spent money is a life-changing education. Would this school have a large and active student body? I would hope so, but the truth is I think most people invest their money at an academic institution expecting to obtain credentials and greater earning power.

In response to this trend, Hugh Nibley quoted Brigham Young:

Will education feed and clothe you, keep you warm on a cold day, or enable you to build a house? Not at all. Should we cry down education on this account? No. What is it for? The improvement of the mind; to instruct us in all arts and sciences, in the history of the world, in the laws of nations; to enable us to understand the laws and principles of life, and how to be useful while we live.1

This, of course, was before the time when education was linked so thoroughly with economic success. Today, in our modern universities, we have forgotten the true intent of education. The purpose of the modern university has evolved, and now its purpose is to be the gatekeeper of a higher economic status. Today, when we talk about education, we mean certification. A. Legrand Richards notes that “whether American colleges want to admit it or not, their central purpose may be to sort and certify students.”2 He quotes Jencks and Riesman, “Virtually every college course culminates in an examination and a grade, and virtually all college curricula lead to some sort of diploma or degree. A college that does not sort and label its students in this way evidently cannot find a clientele.”2

True, there are businesses who profit in distributing academic resources intended solely for personal enlightenment (e.g. The Learning Company), but these businesses are few, and most academic institutions profit only insomuch as they can increase, directly or indirectly, the earning power of their students via accreditation. A friend of mine once remarked that school is the one business where we are happy to get the least for our money. He meant, of course, that we fool ourselves into believing that we are investing our money to obtain knowledge. If that were really true, we would feel ripped off when our professors let us off early or present an undemanding curriculum. Instead, we rejoice.

Nibley once noted, “To be alive is to be conscious, and to be conscious is to think, and to think is to think about something: ‘The brain craves for information as the body craves for food.'”1 Education, I believe, is (or should be) designed to satisfy this craving. Personally, I believe there is an “intellectual famine” in the land. This is because we, as students, are not seeking to feed our minds, but our wallets.

[Brief addendum in comments]

1. Nibley, Hugh. “More Brigham Young on Education.” Available here.
2. Richard, A. Legrand. “The Theory of Medieval Torture and the Modern School: or the Scarlet C–.”


  1. Great example about professors letting class out early.

    This whole thing begs the question, “But shouldn’t education benefit us economically as well?” I think a good answer is, yes, by the knowledge and skills we gain through it, but not through a certificate. For example, if I go to a Home Depot training on laying tile, I could care less whether they give me a certificate—I need to be able to lay tile correctly in my own kitchen. Any certificate is immaterial; I will pay attention because I want my own kitchen to look good when I apply the skills myself. I’d be upset if the teacher dismissed us early when he could have spent the extra time giving additional tips. And I wouldn’t ask whether those additional tips were going to be on a test or not; I would take note of what I thought I could use.

    If college were like this, we’d feel gypped when professors let us out early; we’d expect them to fill the time with more useful information (interestingly, that seems to be what we expect when we go to a class voluntarily, like an Institute class). And we wouldn’t really mind whether we technically graduated or not, if we’d obtained skills and knowledge that would help our career. Wouldn’t it be interesting if employers just wanted to know what you could do, instead of whether you’d graduated?

  2. I have to agree, education would be much more satisfying if employers sought only to know what I can do, rather than what certificate I have. Of course, it can always be argued that certification is designed to be the guarantor of a certain set of skills or knowledge.

    Hugh Nibley argued that the purpose of education shouldn’t be about developing skills for a career… that should be reserved for trade schools and apprenticeships. A university should be about the exploration of knowledge and the expansion of the mind. He explained,

    For Brigham Young, knowledge was what Aristotle calls a good of first intent, a thing good and desirable in itself, needing no argument or excuse for its existence. Goods of secondary intent are good for something else. A hammer, a watch, a pair of shoes, a ladder, a knife—each is good because it helps us get some other good thing we are after; but there are goods whose value does not depend on anything else but is intrinsic and immediate, and knowledge is one of them.

    He quotes Brigham Young: “Truth cleaves unto truth, because it is truth; and it is to be adored, because it is an attribute of God, for its excellence, for itself.”

    I am not sure to what extent I agree with Nibley on this point. I do recognize that trade schools and universities may have very divergent histories, and perhaps it can be argued that it is only recently that they’ve converged and, at least in many people’s minds, become synonymous.

  3. In the seventies and eighties of the previous century there was a movement to “improve education.” One facet of this movement was to poll businesses and have them indicate the skills that they wanted students to have. It seems to me that this was an unfortunate movement from educating citizenry to producing workers. One produces an agent who then uses his knowledge, skill, and creativity to find his purpose and to contribute to society. The second approach produces a worker to fill the needs of employers and serves the state. One becomes educated, the second becomes certified.

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