Rethink.

Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Rant: How Do We Determine If Too Many People Are Going To College Or Not?

Note: I am aware of how hypocritical the end of this is, given that I’m working to be a professor. I’m convinced anyone who stands for anything is prone to hypocrisy – the only way to avoid the problem is to be shameless.

1. Anyone who walks onto a US college or university nowadays is tempted to wonder whether half the people on campus should be there. That sounds like elitism, but I don’t think it is.

It starts with observation of people wearing vulgar t-shirts, making out everywhere or yapping away like there’s no cares in the world: only a minority reads and studies unless it is exam time. Then one moves into the classroom and everyone just seems bored – sometimes listening to their ipods or playing video games during class – or confused, and even in good classes one has to wonder: does anyone ask these students what their ultimate goals are? Are they in a position to put all the knowledge they’ve got together? Were these students even teachable to begin with?

What keeps this rant from being elitist is this simple question: Do the students at institutions of higher learning really want to be there?

2. David Glenn’s “Supply-Side Education” says that perhaps not enough Americans are going to college. The argument goes like this: there have been plenty of technological changes in the 20th c. that demanded more skills. But because of a huge rise in the number of high school graduates and college attendees from 1915-1950, the number of educated workers outpaced the demand. Now college attendance and high school graduation rates have been fairly steady since 1970, and we can all see technological demands are increasing. So perhaps universal higher education would be a good thing?

3. I don’t think I need to tell you how horrible I think this argument is. To say there are holes all over the place doesn’t begin to describe what’s wrong.

The reason why I bring your attention to the article is to open up a question for all of us: How do we figure out whether too many people are in college or not? Should we try and catalog technical skills needed, make an outline of ones we think will be needed, and then build a curriculum around that? If we do that, will college alone be necessary, or will we also have to require everyone to go to graduate school too?

Is education about acquiring technical skills for the sake of making money? The article unabashedly says yes. Here’s what the authors of the study the article rely on say about the value of the liberal arts:

Goldin and Katz, meanwhile, are continuing to develop their model and are scrutinizing the recent growth of wage inequality within the group of people who hold college degrees. “There has been much more growth of inequality among college graduates than among noncollege workers,” Katz says. Only some people, he says, are coming out of college with the high-level abstract-reasoning skills that fully complement the new information technologies and command high salaries. Workers with “midlevel” skills, by contrast, are more likely to see their tasks simply replaced by computers.

I’m not sure how much I should be insulted by this. After all, I totally wanted to do graduate school for the money, the fast cars, the faster women. Should I also be insulted by the fact that the study openly contradicts itself and expects me to be too stupid to notice, perhaps because I don’t have “high-level abstract-reasoning skills,” the same skills he says ALONE “fully complement the new information technologies?” Ah yes! So everyone else who graduates without those skills is a slave or imbecile, precisely because you’ve been claiming they need the same skill set to survive. To Dr. Katz: are you making an argument about education and wage levels, or telling us what sort of education we should have simply because of wage levels?

4. I’m going to put my criteria for higher education forward: this is not about utility, this isn’t about money.

It is about what you want to do, where you want to be.

At 18, it’s up to you if you want to study more or not. It’s up to you if you want the skills that make money – skills that can be had at DeVry or Lincoln Tech, quite frankly – or you want the mastery of knowledge or a fine art that makes you able to appreciate more in life.

If you appreciate more, you make better choices, you help others make better choices. But some people think they can have it all early on, and why not? Plenty of Div 1 student-athletes in basketball and football have everything they want at 18: money, fast cars, fast women. If you think your conception of what is good is not going to change, then go get specialized skills in some technology just as they did in a sport. Again, this isn’t the worst thing – some people don’t realize the value of books and thinking through what is good until life has hit them pretty hard. Most people don’t realize that value ever.

In your defense, if you do want to go this route: It isn’t the worst thing. You are free to make your life what you want it to be. I don’t want you in my classes if you don’t want to be there. Moreover: you might actually know what is good simply, and you should be pursuing that fully, if that is the case. I will offer all the education I can provide via e-mail and recommendations if you want to do something learned while forging your own path instead of college. College isn’t for everyone. It is better if you know why you want to be there, and it is better for you to ask yourself and others what you should get out of it, but if you don’t know why you’re there and go anyway, then it’s a lot worse for everyone involved.

5. You see the difference between me and the economists with the shoddy study – the difference is that I actually care what happens to people as individuals. The question as posed in the title was wrong – education is not about aggregate utility.

Sensitivity to people actually being human and not statistics is what education and scholarship as a whole is lacking nowadays, and will never get back. Not capitalism but a willingness to do anything for wealth and power destroyed the academy. That’s not capitalism – that’s some administrators and some faculty being whores. No college or university thinks they need me, none is set up to find people like me. Do I really need them in order to teach well?

1 Comment

  1. I should have picked up a trade as my vocation, and studied philosophy as my love. Alas, I did not – I am the worse for not too. With all the high level reasoning skills, the phd’s and comp sci folks, the doctors and lawyers, and all these very highly trained and educated people, they can’t even replace a light bulb with help.

    The argument, that more need go to college, is based upon the hatred of the working man (and woman), the very ones who literally built this nation. These uneducated “slobs” as or arguer would call them, are again being spit upon by elitist lazy men. Men who cannot even fix their own homes.

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