Thoughts on the Education Industrial Complex

Over the years, Thomas H. Benton has penned a series of excellent essays about academic culture over at The Chronicle of Higher Education. His latest, “A Perfect Storm in Higher Education” is a look into how the sausage is made from a professor’s perspective. The piece got me thinking, specifically this passage:

Arum and Roksa point out that students in math, science, humanities, and social sciences—rather than those in more directly career-oriented fields—tend to show the most growth in the areas measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment, the primary tool used in their study. Also, students learn more from professors with high expectations who interact with them outside of the classroom. If you do more reading, writing, and thinking, you tend to get better at those things, particularly if you have a lot of support from your teachers.

Of course, those of us who teach at selective liberal-arts colleges have known that all along. But even students at expensive, elite institutions are not achieving as much as they should. Students are adrift almost everywhere, floating in the wreckage of a perfect storm that has transformed higher education almost beyond recognition.

I come from what may be known as The Last Lucky Generation, if one takes a bearish view of the path of instability and insolvency America is on. I come from a middle class family with two parents who saved for my education, and that of my sister’s. I applied to five colleges (this was near the end of that bygone era when Early Admission wasn’t an arms race), and was accepted to all of them – four private, liberal arts colleges and one state university. I was offered generous packages to three of the five, and went with my first choice, an elite liberal arts college in Colorado.

I managed to stay there one year before tuition skyrocketed and my benefits did not – unable to afford the increase, I left and went to … another private college, this time in my home state before … leaving there after a year, finally finishing up at Big State U, where I wish I’d gone all along in retrospect. For someone who didn’t have perfect SAT scores or wealthy parents, someone whose lack of ambition was breathtaking in its prodigiousness, I was lucky beyond belief, even luckier still that I finished undergrad with zero student loans.

At the school in Colorado, I took nine courses taught by nine tenured professors. I learned macroeconomics from a former economic adviser to Pres. Reagan, literature from a relatively-successful published novelist, avante-garde philosophy from a guy who looked like he spent his free time perfecting Molotov cocktails, and sociology from a hirsute left-wing nutjob who once pounded the table and called me a “fucking moron” when I insisted that people who couldn’t find success in this country were both lazy and stupid.

[I’m sure I’m misremembering a bit of that, but he did say “fuck,” he did pound the table, he did stand up, he did point his finger at me, and I – along with most of the class – thought he was going to punch me, and I was not the firebreathing Conservative bomb-thrower I am now; my views then, save for being militantly Pro Life, were moderate; if you need proof, why the hell would I go to a hippie-dippie liberal arts school in the mountains if politics were remotely interesting to me? –z’King]

At the private school in my home state, I took 10 courses taught by nine tenured professors and one TA. At Big State U, I was taught almost exclusively by tenured professors, but there were a few classes taught by TAs.

In high school, I didn’t work hard, skipped as much as I could get away with and generally stayed in only because my parents would have kicked me out had I not, the girls were hot and I had a coterie of close friends. I loathed most of my teachers, though three or four made a positive mark on me. My scores were decent but not exemplary – one of my friends was a National Merit Scholar, another took about a dozen tries to get his coveted 32 on the ACT, and another still scored big on one of the tests, although I don’t remember the score or which test it was. In short…

[No matter how it sounds, what I’m about to say is not something I’m proud of, as I consider my work ethic my most redeeming quality. –z’King]

…I was living proof that life is not fair, as with little work, little effort and few cares got to go to school where I wanted on three consecutive occasions, even though in high school all I secretly wanted to do was run away to become an evangelist or enroll in Vo-Tech and learn how to plumb. I hated having to have a job at a school primarily stocked with children of wealthy families, I did something incredibly dishonest while I was there (and got caught, of course) and overall was a fairly bad person. What can I say? I went through a brat phase that lasted from 17 to 21 – smooth sailing since then, at least entitlement-mentality-begone-wise.

In retrospect, I’m of course thankful my parents saved for my higher education and I got The Higher Education Experience, but in nuts-and-bolts academia, I wasted a lot of time and money. Don’t get me wrong – my GPA was fine, I had a few extracurriculars of note, and overall, I had a great time. Therein lies the problem, though – college, ideally, is about the academics, and the great time is a side benefit.

College is now being filled up with students like me, but instead of burning through their parents money, they are putting themselves into debt to do it. They attend classes taught by adjunct or associate professors (or TAs on the most thankless grist mill in existence), and those people teach subjects that bear little resemblance to what any sane human being would call “a curriculum” even 20 years ago. College is now a dream, a buffet where students who don’t recognize the consequences of the debt they’re taking on or the lack of rigor of their education will have, and when the dream is over, they find themselves in a job market that is awful bearing neither the requisite skills or work ethic necessary for them to succeed, even at a marginal level.

So they go to graduate school, and it gets worse.

Of course there are students who should go to college, students who are driven and know what they want to do in life. It is not fair that teenagers today can’t do what I did – they can’t go to their first-choice school with no idea what they want to do and, four years later still not knowing what they want to do, graduate from college with no debt and get four job offers and take their pick.

The 90s were awesome, weren’t they?

Oh – and again – life is not fair.

I did my graduate work in Education a few years after finishing my undergrad tour, and in that time in graduate school, here is what I learned that is applicable to anyone considering going to college or sending their aimless child to college:

  1. Colleges grub money. It’s not why they used to exist, but in America, it is why they exist. There are very few exceptions to this rule.
  2. If you want a quality education for yourself or your children, get a current copy of every college course catalogue (online I assume) and go through highlighting every single course that is a waste of time and money (trust me, this is easier than it sounds). Next, get a course catalogue from a local junior college or smaller university in-state, find the courses that aren’t a waste of time, and figure out if the difference in price is worth the experience, because that’s what you’re paying for.
  3. If you (I’ll say it one last time – “or your child” but from hereonout, it’s just you) know exactly what you want to do in life (and no, “go to med/law school” does not count), find the best three schools you qualify for and apply to them, and apply to the best in-state university. Unless you get a full-ride, go to the state university.
  4. Most students are not ready for college at the age of 18. If you don’t go to a juco, get a job, join the Peace Corps or the military, learn a trade, apprentice, do something that will imbue you with a work ethic and usable skills – you will be light years ahead of your friends having fun at college when you’re all 23.
  5. The most successful person I know who is a) my age and b) not an attorney or a doctor is a guy who went to Vo-Tech and now owns a giant shop where he and his dozen or so employees perform their trade. To put this in context, he is single, 35, drives a ’11 Corvette, has a massive boat, does what he loves to earn a living, and is smarter than most of the people I went to college with. How’d he do it? He started as an apprentice at his father’s shop while still in high school – while the economy collapses, he moved from his old shop (his second), to his new shop (his third), doubled his square-footage and added people to his payroll. I repeat: you do not need college to be successful, you only need to be willing to work hard.
  6. If you idealize a classical education, good luck finding it at a college. There are a few where you can get this without the mountains of other bullshit colleges force on you, but they are rare and getting rarer. The general wisdom is (or was, a few years ago) is that philosophy is the only field remaining that has not been taken over by lunatics; if you’re interest is in any other area of humanities, except to get bombarded with and expected to conform to the most far-left political ideology you can imagine.
  7. If you want to be a teacher, find the least expensive school offering a Master’s and go there. A graduate degree in Education is easier than an undergraduate degree in almost any other subject, and the Master’s degree will boost your salary immediately.
  8. If you want to be an engineer, architect, research chemist, physicist, medical doctor etc, expect to be light years behind most of your peers, especially if you are an American who went to an American public school. Also expect that by the time you graduate, you will be one of the few American students in your course of study.
  9. If you are a teenage guy with a modicum of skills with women, welcome to paradise! As high schools and colleges have grown increasingly anti-male, you’ll most likely find four of you for every six women, meaning you will have women competing for you that wouldn’t have given you the time of day. Enjoy this while you can.
  10. If you want to be a professor, move to another country.

That’s a start. I used to write about this a lot, but the farther removed I am from graduate school, the less it interests me. What has been done to education in this country is a crying shame, and at least two generations of Americans will suffer because of it, or if not suffer, they will at least miss out on something that used to be common.

Commonality is the problem, though. The value of a college degree ain’t what it used to be, and unlike a high school diploma, you don’t need one to at least get your foot in the door for a decent job. For years, I’ve always said that most teenagers would be wise to learn about how much mechanics, body shop employees, plumbers, electricians, masons and HVAC techs make. Better yet, if you want something more white collar, look into nursing – if you’re good at that, you can go anywhere you want, make gobs of money and not be saddled with the stress and debt of a med school grad.

As for that classical education, I have one, but I didn’t get it in college. Toward the end of my undergraduate education I recognized that I’d been exposed to little that I considered Classic, and so I began to read, read and read some more. I have quite a library with quite a collection of very used books and most who’ve met me understand that I’m educated in the Classical sense.

There is nothing Classic about the American college experience in the 21st century – like the line from Fight Club, it’s a copy of a copy of a copy. Sad, really.


About godsowncrunk
I'm King B, the originator of the Jellywhite lyrical style and god's own crunk.

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