Today, NPR had a brief segment looking at the value of education beyond simply landing a better job (on average).
This is something teachers must consider very frequently. I don't think there's likely to have ever been a class (at least at the high school level) where some smart ass didn't think that asking "How am I going to use this in real life?" was an excuse for not having to learn. My smallest class this year was 2 students, and yet I still had the question asked. Repeatedly.
I think much of what was said in the NPR segment was very important: Education helps in that it creates an informed citizen base that will ultimately vote and decide the heading for the entire nation. Without educated citizens, we're likely to lead ourselves off a cliff.
The interviewer asked how important these esoteric ideals are to someone working as a barista? The response was that such times are a perfect time for education to again be important because such people can better analyze the economic situation (both nationally and personally) and hope to find a way to better their position. Without an basic, educated understanding of how economics work, you'd be lost. As such, it's no surprise so many Americans labor under amazing credit card debts that they will likely never be able to pay off.
The segment also touched on social benefits like "learning to think together" and, perhaps more importantly, "how to disagree." Personally, I think the social aspect of education is vastly understated and one I push to my students the most. One of the things that we find as we become more educated, is that the knowledge we've gained forms a web, and the larger that web gets, the more interconnected it is, the easier it is to connect it to new things. The result is that, even if we don't use a skill or a fact directly, it opens the door to other things indirectly. It allows for us to learn easier in the future. In other words, the true value of education isn't really to retain every factoid and be able to spew it back (although, that is an important component), but it's practice at processing information and assembling it into a coherent picture. What we're truly practicing in school is learning.
The social value of this is that it allows people to continue absorbing information outside of the classroom and sorting it in rational ways. Those tidbits we pick up here or there, from the news or conversations stick better and make us knowledgeable more quickly and easily on topics which we haven't directly studied, allowing us to partake in social interactions more deeply and authoritatively. As I tell my students, it makes you a more interesting person.
And that's worth a lot.