On the value of higher education
Here’s James Poulos on higher education, claiming things like:
We fixate on higher education as the key to employment because no other institution but college really acculturates Americans into “legitimate” society. Those who do not attend college are second-class citizens in a cultural sense first, and in an economic one only second.
Regrettably, the personalities produced by this acculturation process are deeply dysfunctional. With stunning efficacy, college administrators have implemented their cultural visions with ubiquitous, standardized policies that dramatically shape the character of college students and graduates. Rather than being tutored in specific skills and fields, students are trained above all to publicly embrace official moral programming, regulations and ceremonies.
On the surface, it is the most sensitive, placid, managed and idealistic culture the world has ever seen. But below, students busily learn the cynical rules of the unofficial world that thrives beyond the reach of administrators’ moral police power. Pent-up longings for transgressive recreation collide with psychological “issues” and “baggage” that the dark corners of hedonism often worsen.
The contrast intensifies as students enter professional life. Inside the workplace, careers are captive to maternalistic human resources departments that subject all employees to unending sensitivity seminars, team-building retreats and performance reviews. Outside the workplace, singles and couples struggle over the spoils of mutual manipulation and forced intimacy.
It is the direct consequence of the use of higher education as our principal engine of social — not economic — equality. Nevertheless, its economic knock-on effects are profound. Millions of parents invest incredible sums of time, money and productive energy to get their children into the “right” college. Millions of students expend vast amounts of the same resources — this time, often borrowed — to get out of college with the “right” credential. And millions of corporations hire these students for little more reason than that they are applying at the “right” time.
At the wrong time, like the midst of this protracted economic crisis, the job is gone, the credential is useless, the costs are sunk — and the precarious, expensive system of rewards that compensates and justifies the rotten culture and rotten character of America’s college experience also begins to rot away.
The victims of all three types of rot are poorly suited to recover from today’s crisis. Neither life nor learning have equipped them for success as entrepreneurs. The loss of a foreordained career track strikes a devastating blow, not only against their prejudices but their very identities. In tough economic times, their appetites for pleasure and leisure tug them toward downward mobility.
Upward mobility once fueled the rise of American culture to a position of global preeminence. But the sweeping mid-century shift in America’s cultural foundations ushered in a cult of upward mobility.
And here are the credentials listed right after the article:
James Poulos is the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV. A doctoral candidate in Government at Georgetown University, he holds degrees from Duke and USC Law. His writing has appeared in The American Conservative, The Boston Globe, Cato Unbound, The National Interest, and The Weekly Standard, among others, and is featured in the collection Proud to Be Right, edited by Jonah Goldberg. He has been an editor at Ricochet.com and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. He lives in Los Angeles. His Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.
There really are a rash of stories – a glut of stories – on the worthlessness of a college degree. I’ll give James credit that he at least comes at this with a new angle, taking on the very notion of upward mobility itself. Then again, for people who already have a great deal of upward mobility, or for whom the “mobility” is not itself necessary to achieve the “up” it’s not really surprising that the actual value of a college education might be somewhat murky.
But college, in this worldview, is not just a waste of money or responsible for this terrifying “cult of upward mobility” it’s also a bastion of cultural decay. These institutions, from Georgetown to Duke to USC Law, are dramatically shaping the “character of of college students and graduates.” And not in a good way, so the story goes.
I’ll respond in two ways.
First, the actual economic value of a college degree is simply undisputed if you look at the facts. Freddie makes some good points about this as well. So does Matt Yglesias. And if that doesn’t suffice, read David Leonhardt.
In 2010, college graduates had an unemployment rate of about 5.4%. For those with a high school diploma only it’s about 10.3%.
Maybe in some other world where there are no credentials and everyone strives on merit alone – maybe in that world higher education would take a different form, would be relegated to academics and researchers rather than business majors. I don’t know. Who cares about that world. There are all sorts of compelling-enough philosophical arguments against creating a system of credentialization. One could easily enough argue that it is the credentials alone and not the education that crowds out the non-degree holders from the market. But we are not going to rid ourselves of credentials by making college less accessible. If anything, we’d just make the problem worse.
In this world the economic value of a college degree is not in dispute, and so far as I can tell, outside of a few super-nerds like Mark Zuckerburg and Bill Gates, most entrepreneurs also have college degrees. So does just about everyone writing about the worthlessness of said degrees.
It is only in a truly sideways universe that we can blame university for a decline in entrepreneurship. And even if we can level a smart critique of many of the problems surrounding higher education, to blame the institution itself for all this social decline and economic floundering, well I just don’t live in that reality I guess. There are good arguments to be made that the traditional model of higher education needs to evolve. Then again, everything evolves.
The second, and perhaps more troubling claim, in Poulos’s piece is that college is leading to social decline, that the personalities emerging from college are stultified and uniform. That this unmanning of the American workforce leads to sensitivity seminars and cuddly bosses.
This has all my alarm bells ringing. I hear the old seductive song of nostalgia playing loud and clear. Back when college was an institution for the wealthy and elite, it was designed to build character! Now that the masses have climbed the garden walls and are threatening the ivory towers the culture is being poisoned!
And who is poisoning the culture? Why the liberal academics. They’ve snuck past the gatekeepers of the social order and along with the egalitarians are wreaking havoc on young minds, social institutions, and all the rest. Decadence and atrophy ensue.
I say poppycock. The world changes. Nostalgia is all well and good, but it can warp our reason and judgment, send us shrieking into the night at the very scent of change. Liberals and conservatives alike suffer from it, the former lamenting the decline of public education as it invariably changes with the rest of the world and the latter lamenting the very existence of public education to begin with.
I don’t buy it. The world changes and there’s not a damn thing you can do to stop it. Higher education will change in ways that many public education traditionalists will surely decry, and the “cult of upward mobility” will continue to grow as more and more people realize that anyone who talks about opportunity or economic growth or upward mobility as though it were a fixed pie are only doing it because they want to protect their status, their advantage, their wealth and success. They may be motivated by little more than nostalgia, but that’s really all it takes.