Here Anthony Kronman describes the value of treating higher education not as a tool for career advancement but to have the freedom and resources to think about how life should be lived and by what standards. To me, his argument can be applied to self-education after college as well and the importance of making the time to do it:
College is for many a time to prepare for their careers. It is, in fact, the first stage of their careers, a period of preliminary academic training to be followed by other forms of training or by work itself. For those who approach it with this goal in mind, their college education has a clear and measurable value. It contributes in a direct way to the achievement of an already-fixed objective. But its value depends upon the determinacy of the goal toward which it is directed. For others, who are less sure what they want to do or be, for whom the question of how they should spend their lives is a more open one, a college education can be of value for a different reason. It can help them meet the challenge of gaining a deeper insight into their own commitments, of refining for themselves the picture of a life that has purpose and value, of a life that is worth living and not just successful in the narrower sense of achievement in a career.
For undergraduates who approach their studies in a state of curiosity or confusion about these things, a college education can help them find their bearings. It can help them confront the question, which comes before all vocational training and goes beyond any answer that such training can supply, of what living itself is for.
And if it succeeds in doing this, even modestly and incompletely, their education has for them a value very different from the value it has for those who come to college with their expectations fixed. Indeed, it has a value of an opposite sort, for it is the very absence of those settled goals that give all vocational education its utility that makes the question of what living is for so important.
To have the freedom to pursue this question for a period of time in early adulthood is a great luxury. Many cannot afford it. The demands of life press too insistently for them to give the question its due. And some of those who have the time choose not to use it for this purpose. They are distracted or incurious. But for more than a few, who have both the freedom and the inclination, college is a time to explore the meaning of life with an openness that becomes harder to preserve the further one enters into the responsibilities of adulthood, with their many entanglements. College is a time for other things too, but it is also a time to survey, with as open a mind as one can manage, the horizons of the stirring and mysterious venture in which, by the age of eighteen or twenty, an attentive young person will have begun to grasp that he or she, like every human being, is fatefully engaged. For those who see the value of this survey, and have the time to make it, a college education affords an opportunity that may not come again. And however few they are in number or in proportion to the student population as a whole, it seems natural to regard this opportunity as a very great good that we would wish others to share and regret if they can’t for lack of money or time.