It seems to me that in popular discourse, education is uniquely susceptible to instrumentalization as compared with other quality of life issues. Getting a job is seemingly the sole horizon within which education can be discussed — even humanities scholars continually exhort each other to “make the case” that their graduates actually have the most valuable job skills of all, etc., etc. There are more “idealistic” visions of education that tend to place it within the context of democratic citizenship, but that is just a larger-scale vision of practical instrumentalization. There just doesn’t seem to be room in mainstream discourse for someone to say, “Being educated improves and enriches every part of life, not just your work life.”
Now it’s clear that people need skills and jobs and that education should help to serve that end. Yet to understand how strange it is for that to be the sole focus, let us consider another quality of life issue: health care. No one goes to their doctor and says, “Let’s cut the impractical bullshit — just give me enough medicine to get me through my working day.” No one looks at their cholesterol level and says, “I guess that’s pretty high, but it’ll get me through my working life.” I don’t think any politician has ever said, “We need health care reform because we lose millions of person-hours a year to illness.” Similarly, when working out or eating healthy, people are generally not thinking of how it will improve their performance and endurance at work.
Obviously you need to be healthy in order to work, and obviously working is an important part of life — but being healthy is an intrinsic good. In fact, if we hear stories of people who do get the minimum treatment necessary to get them back to work when more is needed to restore their health, we tend to assume either that they’re in a pretty desperate and impoverished situation or else that they have radically skewed priorities.
So my sincere question is this: what accounts for this difference?