Tuesday, October 10

Hey! Let's all go to college!

An article by Clive Crook in November's Atlantic Monthly argues that in a society like ours where the majority of young people now go to college, college itself becomes a cheapened commodity. Jobs that used to be entry-level from high school, to which one could work oneself "up," now require a college diploma. Crook gives the example of Hotel/Motel Management, but does not say whether the degree or the requirement for one came first.

More high school graduates than ever are going on to college. But rather than the rising tide of education raising all economic boats, as parents have always hoped, it is clear that job opportunity (and income) winds up being a result of who your parents are and what kind of college education they can buy for you. "[P]arental incomes better predict children's incomes in the United States than they used to...America is becoming less meritocratic."

What Clive doesn't discuss are two other factors: the decimation of both labor unions and the industrial base in the United States in the 1970s and 80s, and the fact that since that time, real wages have failed to keep up with inflation, particularly in the housing market. Unlike the days when factory jobs were more plentiful, a young person without higher education simply cannot make enough money in this country to live on.

More and more it seems to me the job market has two opportunities: computer programmer oops sorry, those jobs are being exported to India, and Wal Mart. Bank tellers have four years of college or at least two. You wind up spending at least $45,000 to make a starting salary of less than that amount before taxes each year if you're lucky.

There are some secrets in this story: college educated black women make more money in the course of their lifetimes than college educated white women, due to two factors: black women are less likely to stop working when they have a child, and are more likely to be hired to management positions in the public sector, where benefits are high and salaries good.

I think Crook's (sorry for that name, but that's really it) basic question is worth discussing. Do we really want a society where everybody HAS to have a college education? For one thing, it leads to college classes where a great many students want to know what ancient history, philosophy, and literature have to do with their getting a job, and no one wants to hear the article's argument that "enlightenment, not productivity, is the chief social justification for four years at college."

Then there are the college students who party their four years away. What is their contribution to society? My sister had a classmate in one of her history classes say, "I got a D-minus. Thank God! All I needed was the credit!" Credit for what? He's got the diploma now, so I guess he can work at Hampton Inn.

When I was getting my second master's degree (Don't get me started. I'm a blogger now. Enlightened, not productive! See?) my special education professor pointed out that one of the big problems with No Child Left Behind is that it expects each and every child to be a scholar. We don't expect every child to be an athlete, but we expect them to be scholars, even if they have mental retardation (MR students are tested and their test scores count toward the public school's overall average), and even without funding the mandate. We all must go to college, even to work behind the desk at the downtown Marriott. Our nation's future depends upon it.


  1. Anonymous5:11 PM

    I'm a college prof at a mid-sized, open admissions university. And I can say with certainty that not everyone should go to college!! Of course, since there aren't many (any) decent jobs that one can get without a college education, and parents often push the kids into college, they go anyway. Once there, rather than learning, they negotiate for grades like a used car salesperson.

  2. I agree with Pam. Not everyone is college material, or necessarily ready for college at age 18. But, I disagree that there aren't any decent jobs available for those without a 4 year degree.
    In my community - still recovering from the rustbelt '80's - demand is high for specially trained workers in health care, light manufacturing, automotive repair, air conditioning and heating, plumbing, etc. These jobs don't require a 4 year degree. Nor do they require taking on a ridiculous personal debt load to acquire the education and training necessary for a family-supporting job.
    As an example, I can point to my own son who, with an associate degree, earns double the income of his mother who has worked in her field for nearly 30 years and has a Master's degree.
    As a culture, we have a bias toward the 4 year college degree that stands in the way of directing our children along the path best suited for their abilities. And don't get me started on the whole "class" thing. I've gone on long enough already.

  3. Last week I shared a ride to the airport with a young man, born in India, educated in the US, who was back in the US doing computer grunt work because his computer job in India was just out-sourced to China.

    It's not that everyone should not go to college it's the lack of long term opportunities for working people.

  4. My cousin and several friends teach. When asked about NCLB all said we are facing a generation of students who have not been taught to think and reason.

    Remember Kent.

  5. "[P]arental incomes better predict children's incomes in the United States than they used to...America is becoming less meritocratic."

    I read not so long ago that the correlation between parental incomes and those of their children in America was not only much higher than in the past, but also higher than in any of the Western European countries. Hmmm.. a system where one's income is not derived by hard work or talent, but by birth. Isn't that called feudalism? Why don't they just give the wealthy titles again? William, the Earl of Microsoft. Lord Theodore of Turner Broadcasting, etc...

    Isn't this just the kind of system the American Revolution was fought to eliminate?

  6. I would have loved to go to college, I think. But I never actually got to find out.

    Instead, I dropped out of high school (to audit college classes), got married very young (parental blackmailing) and took care of my parents' family while they navigated a health crisis, and ended up needing cash to support my divorce, then always being so busy with my career that I couldn't quite justify the time and expense of college. Especially when looking at the dismal prospects of online or locally-availble degrees, which seem to be a lot like glorified high school.

    But since I ended up carving a respectable place for myself in my profession (which may or may not be a special case - I'm never quite sure), I wonder whether the college degree is actually necessary, or whether it is some form of sales pitch by the education industry as a whole. Don't get me wrong - formal education is a wonderful thing to have, and it really can broaden, deepen, and altogether refocus the vision of those who go through it. But if it is obtained by way of making a checkmark on a checklist, it probably won't broaden, deepen, or refocus - it will be endured, on the way to that hotel reception job, while people with actual talent and vision (who may or may not have formal educations) go ahead and reshape the world.

    For a prime example of that, observe our president. HE has a college degree...

  7. The problem, as I see it, is that no one knows how to effectively teach students how to think outside the box. The A students catch onto this but everyone else doesn't know how to be proactive and apply all this abstract knowledge to a concrete reality. We ought to teach people that they shouldn't think of a career like a script to be read--they ought to advocate for themselves and learn to think critically.

    Education shouldn't be like an assembly line.

  8. About 8-10 years ago, Heinemann Press published a book called One Size Fits Few about the standards movement, written by Susan Ohanian. The premise was that all the talk of "raising the bar" had nothing to do with wanting the best for children, and everything to do with providing corporations with a pool of workers from which they could skim off the creme de la creme (and pay them lousy wages because unions have been so diminished.) It's a good book, and much of what it talked about has come to pass under NCLB.

  9. It's not just that they can't teach students how to 'think outside the box,' they don't teach students to think at all. The objective is to create obedient, incurious servants of the corporate feudal state, not thinkers. Syllabi are often written (sometimes clandestinely) by the corporations themselves, particularly if your major is chemistry, forestry, geology or any other discipline having to do with marketable natural resouces. And if your major is political science or history or journalism, you are forced to tolerate constant accusations of liberal indoctrination. All of this adds up to the college-as-job-training situation we are in now. I have a co-worker who ridiculed another co-worker for majoring in philosophy. "When have you ever seen a job advertisement seeking a philosopher?" he asked mockingly. Why waste four years studying something useless like philosophy when you can "Get your degree in one year!" like the ads I see all over the internet promise? In the mean time, we get dumber and dumber and less and less able to think critically or employ deductive reasoning or thoughtfully express our views, etc. Devo was right. We are devolving.

  10. Big Daddy Malcontent,

    What I was arguing is that no one bothers to teach students how to adequately synthesize core disciplines into a coherent whole. No one bothers to explain: "Why does philosophy matter? Why does history matter?"

    There was an expectation in the 17th and 18th centuries that all people should strive to be polymaths. I don't know why those expectations seem to have fallen by the wayside these days.

    I suppose my question to you is this: How would you propose we reform the system?

  11. Comrade Kevin,

    Well, my thought on how to correct this regrettable situation with our education system would be to completely undo the system and start over. As John Taylor Gatto observes in Dumbing Us Down, our educational system was developed by John D. Rockefeller and other early industrialists for the purpose of training workers and soldiers to serve the corporate power structure. For the first few decades of organized public education in America, almost all of the funding came from these industrialists, and they modeled their plan after the Prussian educational system, whose purpose was to serve the Prussian war machine. The point at which one dropped out of the educational system determined the point at which one dropped into the workforce/military. A high school dropout would become an assembly line worker or infantryman or some such thing, a college dropout might become a foreman or sergeant, and a degree holder might run a factory and so forth. Excellence in a specific, narrow field of study was encouraged, while a broad understanding of a wide variety of disciplines was discouraged, unless you were from the nobility. With the exception of a few school districts, this is essentially the system we have now.

    In Minneapolis, where I live, a few public high schools are experimenting with something called the International Baccalaureate Program, which attempts to emphasize the humanities, multiculturalism and multidisciplinary studies. This program is modeled after similar programs offered at private schools favored by diplomats, but boy is it encountering resistance from local parents! The refrain these parents dutifully recite is the three Rs — readin’, ritin’, & rythmatic. Anything more than that, they fear, is liberal inculcation. This provides a microcosmic view of most Americans’ views on education.

    I don’t have any suggestions on how to undo this situation. The few people who embrace the International Baccalaureate Program and similar approaches to education are viewed as ‘elitists’ by the suspicious morons who vastly outnumber them. Therefore, progress is glacial at best. Last year, for example, a Kansas school district banned the drama department from staging Grease. GREASE! And last week, a Texas father complained about — ironically — his daughter reading Fahrenheit 451 because it contains dirty words.

    So, Comrade, I’m afraid I can’t offer any solutions, other than to more precisely identify the problem. Sorry.


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