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Ethan Tobias '12: B.S. about B.A.s

Will Wray's '10 column ("B.A. — D.O.A.", March 5) makes the case against higher education for those who cannot afford it and are not brilliant enough to deserve merit-based financial aid. He argues that a B.A. is essentially an overpriced tool for businesses to screen applicants, and dismisses the idea of government subsidies promoting college education. I object.

A college education is an essential part of your intellectual growth. It teaches you how to think, analyze and be critical of what you read and hear in the media. It makes beginning a new job easy, not because you already know the requisite skill set, but because you already know how to learn.

Furthermore, spending time at college provides an opportunity for academic growth. Many people, especially at Brown, end up pursuing studies they would never have imagined in high school. College opens students up to ways of thinking and a set of knowledge that they would never have thought to look into on their own.

You cannot replace real live professors and peers with books. As much as books can teach us, they do not hold office hours and they cannot answer our questions when we are confused. Books do not provide hands-on knowledge. As anyone who has ever read a laboratory procedure knows, it is always a lot easier to actually be doing the lab — motor learning is key.

More importantly, even if it were possible to get an education on the cheap at the library, that sort of learning will inevitably have limits. How would someone go about picking which books to read? I imagine that most people would just tend to read books that they have heard of, restricting their potential to explore subjects and material that they do not even realize that they don't know.

Furthermore, if millions of students suddenly made a run on the libraries, the government — and ultimately the taxpayer — would have to increase library budgets to make up for the shortfall.

Wray's claim that financial aid will ensure that all the poor geniuses still get to college misses a rather large number of students who fall into a sort of donut hole. Their parents make enough money to support their education — but only just enough. They cannot qualify for financial aid, and yet they will need to take out loans, do work study, sacrifice on home improvement and  vacations and even skimp on siblings' educations in order to afford schools like Brown. For many of these families, any government assistance through loans or grants can make a big difference.

There are surely many students with great potential who lack the opportunities and motivation to excel in high school. Even Wray's example, Albert Einstein, earned poor marks in many subjects, and failed his initial college entrance exams. College provides late bloomers like him a chance to finally find themselves and accomplish amazing things. What a shame it will be if the would-be solver of global warming were to end up filing paperwork or flipping hamburgers.

One of Wray's biggest issues with government subsidies for higher education seems to be the image of hard-earned taxpayer money being used to turn colleges into country clubs. The only basis Wray provides is the tale of a spa-like recreational center at the University of Missouri, where "students chill in the hot tub or splash in a lazy river surrounded by palm trees and a rocky waterfall while waiters serve poolside wraps, smoothies and protein shakes." But as Wray even admits, "There is no explicit connection between tax subsidies and (the) palatial sports complex." Many universities receive contributions with strings attached; the funds for projects like this rec center often could never be used for any other purpose.

Finally, Wray provides one of the greater indictments of his own proposed plan to slash funds for millions of students' higher education: "It may smack of injustice." You bet it does. The end result of cutting taxpayer-supported education is the destruction of any semblance of equal opportunity. The rich will dominate society, while many highly qualified individuals will lose out because they happened to be born into circumstances beyond their control.

A liberal education should not be the luxury of a select few. It has the potential to expand mindsets, encourage critical thinking skills and develop the natural talents of untold numbers of people. By cutting education funding for millions of Americans, the government effectively robs the country of its future, destroying the seeds of progress before they have a chance to grow. There really is no better investment in long term economic growth than ensuring access to higher education for all. Let the government funds flow.

Ethan Tobias '12 wants you to pay for him to lounge on the lazy river. He can be reached at


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