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What Gives a Person Worth? A Degree?

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“It only stands to reason that where there’s sacrifice, there’s someone collecting the sacrificial offerings. Where there’s service, there is someone being served. The man who speaks to you of sacrifice is speaking of slaves and masters, and intends to be the master.” – Ayn Rand

Last weekend I attended my 5-year Stanford Graduate School of Business reunion. Kicking off the weekend, before the various activities that fill typical reunion weekends, I attended the official opening of Stanford’s brand new $345 million business school campus. The richly elegant but comfortable campus highlights the tremendous amount of resources the university and its alumni are willing to invest into the relatively small business school (approximately 380 graduates per class), as well as the rather spectacular arms race taking place among top tier business schools.

The new campus is amazing. It is cutting edge, and uniquely Californian with lots of open space and natural sunlight permeating into every classroom. It was designed to facilitate unique collaboration between the various members of the Stanford community and a level of creativity that is unparalleled among business schools. It will likely solidify Stanford’s position as the most selective MBA program in the US for decades to come, and perhaps give it a vice-like grip on its current #1 US News ranking. It was easy to get wrapped up in all the buzz about the glorious future of the business school and the impact her graduates would have on the world. Improving on the past successes of the school would be difficult, but it seemed almost self-evident that it would happen. It made me proud to be an alumnus.

The next day I met with someone who I had long considered to be my best friend, also a Stanford person, but not a classmate. Our friendship was lost when they abruptly decided one day to cut off communication with me in order to bolster a burgeoning romantic relationship with someone who was extremely insecure about our existing friendship. I hadn’t planned on meeting them while I was in town, but after randomly bumping into them I accepted their invitation to meet for a drink. The meeting was painful as it brought back emotions of abandonment and indifference that I had spent so long fighting off. The meeting made clear, in a very callous way, that I had knowingly spent years being the only one buying into what I thought was a uniquely special friendship. Depressed, I ended up skipping the remaining reunion activities for the weekend. Instead, I spent my time in the California sun, and the past week back in the Texas sun, thinking about relationships and people, and what gives each worth.

These weren’t new questions for me to ponder. As someone who has always challenged convention and pushed back against authority, as an opinionated entrepreneur who chose to deviate from a clear path toward financial security and perceived professional accomplishment, and as someone who has had a philosophical awakening over the past several years, I am used to asking such questions. Over the past two years in particular I have struggled to come to terms with the contradictions that seem to be pervasive in our society. For example, the idea that I must support the use of force by government to coerce people to do what is in those people’s best interest. Or the notion that peace and stability at home can be had if I support wars abroad. Or the sacrificial belief that I must endure situations which bring me pain in order to bring about joy in the lives of those I care about.

Through this exercise of thought I was able to finally view the relationship in its proper context. No longer did I focus on what I felt was unrequited love (in a platonic sense), but on my role in an offset relationship. I acknowledged that I fell victim to the ridiculous societal meme that to love another requires compromise, and my compromise was my own happiness. A person of worth does not engage in acts of self-immolation to win over others.

This brought me back to my pride in being a graduate of Stanford, as well as my pride in being a graduate of West Point. Why did I get such a feeling of exceptionalism from these institutions that have let through some amazing people who have changed the course of history, but also hordes of people who wandered aimlessly through life, as well as criminals and parasites who have used their advantaged positions in society to destroy the lives of countless others? I realized that I was associating my personal worth as an individual with that of an imperfect university, just as so many others associate their personal worth with flags, political parties, churches, high schools, sports teams and/or family names.

The great people who have passed through these schools were not great because they were associated with these institutions. In fact, the institutions benefit far more from the jockeying of overqualified applicants who are looking for a stamp of approval than students benefit from the institutions. The great alumni are viewed as such because of what they accomplished in their short lives. While they may have benefitted from the advantages that an imperfect society bestows on people associated with these institutions, mere association accomplishes nothing. Likewise, the great Americans in our history were not great because they were American. While they likely benefitted from the more abundant opportunities available to them relative to people in less free nations around the globe, citizenship accomplishes nothing. People do not have worth because they belong to a preferred political party (in fact, allegiance to political parties may indicate an absence of worth), to a religion, to a particular family or to any other social institution.

A degree cannot give a person any measure of worth, if they have any measure of self-worth to begin with. Loyalty and allegiance may flow naturally toward institutions that one was a member of and grew fond of, but those institutions are ultimately irrelevant to the quality of character of an individual. Stanford opened my eyes to a world of opportunity, it made me question my perception of risk, and it introduced me to the language of business. It provided me with the opportunity to develop a handful of friendships with wonderful people, who would have been wonderful whether or not they decided to matriculate. It gave me a way to access certain employers and investors that would have otherwise ignored my phone calls. I benefitted from the experience greatly, but Stanford, like West Point, never defined for me what my values are, and it most certainly was not able to guide me through the difficult forks in the road of life that everyone encounters.

People have worth because of their values. The values one holds will drive their relations with other people. A person of worth will not sacrifice their values in order to achieve a heightened level of professional accomplishment, nor will they sacrifice their values in order to develop insincere relationships with people who do not have compatible value systems. A person of worth does not lead a life in which they seek masters to rule over them, nor do they seek to be masters of others. They do not throw away their life to make others happy, nor do they want others to sacrifice for their benefit. Only people of worth are able to create value for themselves and the people that they voluntarily interact with. People of worth live lives of integrity and by doing so enrich the lives of those around them.

The process by which we define our values, and the subsequent actions that we undertake that validate those values have nothing to do with schools, flags, political parties, churches, high schools, sports teams and/or family names. It has to do with a real education that must by nature be self-directed, a rich life filled with novel experiences to test that education, and deep introspection on the tail end of those experiences. The bulk of my education has been informal, completely detached from my formal education.  I have experienced only over the past couple of years what homeschool students have long been able to experience – a relevant education. Degrees are nothing more than credentials, they open doors in a society that has grown used to checking for credentials. We should never look to pieces of paper or other people for some sort of validation of our own self-worth, because by doing so we only undermine our worth as individuals.

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