There are many crossroads in life, where lovers part and friends bid adieu. The transition between teenage and adult lives is one of those. In Delightful Chun-Hyang, the titular character turned her classmate (and love interest) from a mediocre student to an enrollee at a prestigious college, while she, ironically, failed to get admitted to one when her hostess mom gambled away her college fees. And so, the once high-flying model student could only look on wistfully as her tutee moved away from their small province, into the arms of her wealthy love rival studying at the university, and basked in the glory of his new-found social circle there.
Nonetheless, all roads lead to Rome and many broken bonds are mended there. The lack of college credentials was no obstacle in the go-getting girl’s determined quest to make the best of her life. In lieu of paper writing, Chun-hyang spent her days crafting and marketing jewelry, transforming herself into a business titan by the end of the series just as her teenage sweetheart became a prosecutor. After coming full circle, the two lovebirds reaffirmed their feelings for each other and exchanged their marriage vows.
Nine years since the completion of the drama series, the skepticism surrounding the value of a college degree has only intensified. Even as tuition costs escalate relentlessly, the payoff for college education is more uncertain than ever. Huge proportions of college graduates over the world find themselves unemployed or underemployed. Conversely, stories about menial jobs with six-figure salaries have been making the rounds on the Internet and the broadsheets. In fact, many people can see around themselves peers who have risen through the ranks or, like Chun-hyang, carved out their own niches without paying an arm and a leg for a college diploma. Increasingly, higher education is appearing like a weak investment, an unnecessary burden on public coffers, and even a luxury game that only the rich can afford to engage in without regrets.
Notably, the element of character building in higher education does not feature in these discussions and hardly anyone would bat an eyelid at this fact. After all, college is a time for independent learning and, with the immediacy of the need for career building, pre-vocational training and intellectual development figure far more prominently on the radar than moral education. Besides, it seems ethically problematic to place such an exorbitant price tag on character education.
Yet working life can hardly be navigated without encountering questions of morality. Should one use a pirated software, dubious sources of supplies or some means of bribery to cut costs since “everyone in the country is doing it anyway?” Do you give your clients’ interests or your organization’s interests top priority? What happens when matters of life and death are at stake?
While many issues can be resolved with common sense, that of interpersonal relations is much murkier. In both white- and blue-collar settings, the problems of trust and treatment with dignity pervade the workplace. And the judgement of human character arguably influences the way individuals treat one another in these two respects. Persons perceived to possess more esteemed qualities are generally received more warmly and with less wariness.
This is where higher learning could have shaped such dynamics for the better. The beauty of college education lies not just in its exploration of the human knowledge landscape and its testing of the limits of human inquiry efforts, but also in its cultivation of habits of the mind. A proper college education, as found in certain respectable institutions, would have cautioned people against implying causation from correlation, identifying a pattern from isolated anecdotes, and establishing a statement as a universal truth without testing its bounds. Without such benefit of reason, a society would be relegated to a gathering of unthinking feelers ruled by unbridled emotions and reacting to the sophistication of modern life with primitive responses. On the contrary, curbing these instincts by giving individuals time to prove themselves and looking beyond superficialities can be what workers need to do to make sure that they are according one another the level of trust and respect they truly deserve.
On the other hand, scholars are not necessarily the fairest tribe of arbiters around. Other than issues of akrasia, the effect of “domain dependence” may be at work here. Best-selling author Nassim Taleb suggests that, under this phenomenon, professionals are not used to applying their expert insights to their personal conduct. How widely true this is remains to be ascertained but such a theory is highly plausible, given that norms regulating personal decisions are already entrenched in human society through its long evolutionary history and ingrained in one prior to the acquisition of such insights.
Still, throwing up one’s hands in abandonment is no solution to the conundrum. Rather, the remedy may be to encourage the application of scholarly habits to daily life. Similarly, cost concerns, instead of being conceded as impediments to this effort, can be tackled head on by streamlining university operations, attracting industry sponsorships for students and so on. Alternatively, the reasoning process inculcated in the course of higher education can be carefully distilled and introduced as a stand-alone unit or integrated aspect of the final stage of high school education, formal apprenticeships, continuing education and organizational in-house training. As with matters of health and freedom, people deserve every effort to secure their rights to be treated with justice and to be able to avoid doing injuries to others.
Often, whether we go on the well-trodden path or the one less traveled by, the journeys matter more than the destinations roads take us to.