Eyeing Value: The Mona Lisa and a University Education

The original Renaissance Man, Leonardo da Vinci, is believed to have painted Mona Lisa over a dozen odd years in the early 1500s. The painting’s Italian (and therefore French) name, La Gioconda (La Joconde) or the happy one, is a wordplay on the name of its presumed model, Lisa del Gioconda. The painting is thought to have been commissioned by her husband, Francesco del Gioconda, a wealthy silk merchant in Florence.

Bought  for 4,000 écus by the King of France, France I (François) after Da Vinci passed in circa 1519, the painting has more or less rested in the Louvre since 1797 where it has been on display.

For the original sale, François paid an amount equal to 13.94 kg of gold. Looking at it another way, consider that in circa 1650 French North America the annual salary of a surgeon was 33-50 écus. Assuming that, like the British Pound, an écu also depreciated about six times between 1520 and 1650, the painting was bought by François for a sum comparable to 500 times that surgeon’s salary.

I was in Paris just over a month ago and paid Mona Lisa a visit. Since her visage is ubiquitous around the world, seeing the actual display was a little anticlimactic. However, because the painting is the object of such wide desire, viewing it is also a treat. It is true that the lady has no eyebrows and eyelashes and that her eyes (seem to) follow you as you walk through the gallery.

It is also interesting to see how visitors interact with La Joconde. During my visit, the crowd was hushed, engrossed and orderly. Almost everyone snapped a picture, as though of a celebrity, and then fiddled around with the setting of their devices to ensure that the image was close to the quality that they expected.

mona lisa

Beauty and value lie in the eye of the beholder. Guinness World Records puts a market price of a billion U.S. dollars for the Mona Lisa.

What is the value of a university education, such as one we provide through McMaster Engineering, to the beholder? While a less graceful estimate might place the worth of the education equal to the original monetary cost of tuition and provincial support, clearly the benefit is not so closely bounded. Since it can continue to accrue and multiply over a lifetime, a more realistic value is obtained through the eyes and perceptions of others, like the appreciation that visitors to La Joconde have of it.

How is the perception of a university education shaped?

Is it by how the university and its programs are ranked? The employability of its graduates? Its linkages and interactions with employers? The scholarship and research that it produces? Opportunities for students to become engaged through meaningful work and extracurricular experiences? The global context in which it develops its curriculum? Its commitment to diversity and equity? Its desire to be excellent?

Or isn’t it all of the above – and more? Such as the education of engaged citizen scholars who go on to transform our world.


One thought on “Eyeing Value: The Mona Lisa and a University Education

  1. Interesting… what is the value of education?

    Can it really be compared with that of a painting or some inanimate object?

    If it can be then what about the value of those who educate – our teachers, our parents, those moments in life that hurt us and we learnt.

    I wish I knew. But this I know, the moment we put assign a monetary value to education, the purpose of such education is intrinsically lost and it becomes zero.


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