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Degrees to Nowhere


Education is like torture. Or, the opposite of torture, in the way popular culture regards it.

We are all proud to hear that the United States does not torture, but we do not have a sound, common definition of what constitutes torture. Torture is vague, something that evil people do. Take waterboarding. Some say it is obviously cruel, while others point out that we do it to our own as a routine part of training. We go on to ignore the lack of definition and argue about whether this vague idea is effective, and under which hypotheticals it might be exceptionally permissible.

Education is vague. Good people and good nations value education. We value the vague idea of education so much that it is a culture imperative to have a high school diploma. A college degree has rapidly ascended to the same regard. We want a society where every person has a BA or BS, and Federal policy increasingly supports this feel-good notion.

But what is education? Particularly, higher education. When I was in college, it was largely conceived as advanced training for professional careers, with a nod toward a broader exapnsion of the mind. A university degree was the key to escape a probably comfortable, but sharply limited, life of working on an assembly line or as a clerk. I was the first in my bloodline to be granted a diploma, and it was a big deal for the family.

Even that conception, of learning career tools, was an evolution in the meaning of higher education:

A Liberal Arts education was designed for gentlemen-scholars, the remarkable few who were driven by curiosity, the clergy, and to produce new teaching professionals. Good citizenship, and the practical tools to function in the world were taught in the lower years. The basic furnishings of the mind, as reader MM would term it.

A Liberal Arts degree was never meant to be practical, yet 30% of Americans have Bachelor Degrees: degrees that could mean anything, or nothing at all.

We are embracing that meaninglessness. When it became seen as essential to have a degree, our culture began lowering standards and inflating grades to make sure more people were awarded their sheepskin ticket to the good life. We focused more on the syblmoism of the credential and less on the practical value of what was taught and what was learned. Various programs of “cultural studies” and “comparitive histories” began turning out grads with a broad (or narrow) worldview, but no genuine means of adding an value to the world.

The democratization of higher ed, via things like the GI Bill, turned higher ed into a job credential. These days, I seem many young people who enjoy and are inspired by college in the old-fashioned way - but a very large many who "just need the piece of paper" and who cheat, screw, and drink their way through it while avoiding anything difficult or challenging.

The shift in focus to symbolism over value is expensive to the society and the economy.

The social consequence is having masses of non-scholars living extended childhoods at a ridiculous cost to their parents. While enjoying the luxury to some extent, many are also frustrated by a yearning for independence and adulthood, and the desire to do something real. Famous college drop-outs like Bill Gates, Winston Churchill, Mark Twain, Noel Coward, Woody Allen, Warren Buffet, Charles Dickens (grammar school drop-out), Albert Einstein (high school drop-out), Robert Frost, J. Paul Getty, Horace Greeley (high school drop out), and Bob Dylan are among them.

We would do well to examine the meaning, purpose, and value of education. Before we throw even more money at Big Ed, let’s build a sound definition of what we expect to receive for all those dollars. To continue as we are is torture.