I am delighted that your recent editorial takes to task the nonsense of education, particularly higher education, as a panacea for what ails us here in the US in regards to a better economic future for all of us.
I have never thought that the push for more college spending and putting more people in college was ever an honest social policy prescription. The people behind it had too much of an economic stake in the policy for me to ever take it seriously.
Several points need making that I am not going to take the time to stitch into a coherent essay. First is the overall utility of higher education for learning in general. Chris Hedges is pretty damned good as a researcher, and one of his latest, the excellent The Death of the Liberal Class, has some extraordinarily damning statistics on book readership nowadays in the USA. According to Hedges, 25% of all high school graduates never read another book again for the rest of their lives once they graduate from high school. The shocker is that 31% of all university graduates never read another book once they graduate from college. Two things jump right out from this statistic. First is that we are, right now, wasting a college education on 31%, a third, nearly, of everyone now attending college. Second thing is one that the education industry needs to look at, assuming they have guts enough to, and that is why the additional exposure to the educational process makes people less interested in learning in life. I don’t think that there is a worse indictment for how futile so much of higher education is than that.
Except maybe from another interesting book I read a couple of years ago now. Book was titled something like Blue Collar to White Collar (I’ll leave it to you to find the publication details, I’m offline now, thankfully) and this book was about people from blue-collar backgrounds who made the jump into white-collar America and how they did it and what it was like for them to do it. Wasn’t a bad piece of sociology, although it lacked a lot in critical attitude towards the topic. Nevertheless there were two gems in it. First thing was the author pointing out that almost all of the people she interviewed who’d made the jump did so via academia. They grew up blue-collar, worked blue-collar for a stretch, and then went off to college and became professors or academic administrators of some sort. Point here is that there aint no class mobility here in the US anymore to speak of except through academia, and that ladder is rapidly being pulled up as fewer and fewer universities hire tenure-track professors, as they all seem to be bent on getting rid of tenure anyway, in best neoliberal fashion. The second story is better, one horribly true, one that I can see myself in when I was their age, and one that when I tell, here in Austin to white (semi)professionals gets groans of recognition and sometimes people even anticipate the outcome before I get to the punchline.
Seems as this one sociologist put together two groups of kids, one of blue-collar kids and one of white-collar kids. Each group of kids was given the same task to do, with the same materials at hand, with the same time to do it. Task was some sort of trained chimpanzee thing of assembling boxes and stacking them on top of one another to climb up to the top of a wall and grab the bag of candy sitting on top. Something like that–I don’t remember the precise details. The blue-collar kids got together, picked some leaders, came up with a plan, went to work, had a couple of missteps along the way that they worked through, and got the task done with plenty of time to spare. The white-collar kids spent the entire time arguing about what to do, and they accomplished nothing.
Damn but that is the truth about white-collar America there. Kids are a damned good reflection of their parents, and how they approached the problem reflects what/how their parents approach problems too. Only thing I’d add is if the experiment had involved kids a bit older–say in 10th grade–the white collar kids no doubt would have formed several committees to study the problem as their solution.
On my end of things, it has only been in the last couple of years that I’ve stopped having the recurring nightmare of being back in college, taking a heavy course load with a bunch of hard math/science classes, being late in the semester, being hopelessly behind in studying, and knowing that I am doomed to a report card full of F’s. About a decade after graduating, I had another recurring nightmare similar where I had been bored into stupidity or something and had gone to graduate school and was in a similar situation. Only in the last couple of years, thirty years now since I sat in a University of Texas classroom, have these nightmares stopped. I don’t know that my problematical liberal arts degree is a fair trade for decades of these stupid nightmares. What is more is that everyone I know who went to college has the same nightmare. Somebody ought to look into that.
Here in Austin my adult-acquired blue-collar attitudes of get-r-done constantly puts me at odds with the people in every lefty organization I’ve ever volunteered with. The left in this town is most all white professional UT grad FBA’s (Future Bureaucrats of America) and they are all very happy to have endless meetings and are mostly unwilling to do physical grunt work. And when they do do it, they mostly do it badly, and too many of them lack a sense of quality control in their work results.
Another Austin Texas observation is that the gross overstaffing in City and County departments in the office side of things is part and parcel of the larger picture of higher education in America. Here in Austin, the main objective for lots of people is to get a desk job with a government bureaucracy. The powers that be are perfectly happy with doing that, no matter what they publicly say otherwise. You put rowdy young people on the government tit in a college town like this they don’t get politically active. Cheap way of buying off the radical tendencies of youth. Much the same with the universities. There the tendency is to buy off the intelligentsia and keep them from asking the wrong hard questions. It works.
Statistic I came across last year that I need to research out some more is the percentage of managerial job slots in the US workforce. Seems as the US has 12% of its workforce in supervisory/managerial job slots, by far the highest in the western industrialized world. Our nearest competitor is Sweden the nanny state, with all of 5% in managerial slots. Couple of things follow from this. First is that the US economy is likely doomed in the long term from this misallocation of resources to unproductive managerial deadwood in a competitive world economy. (That, and of course, our misallocation of resources in our health–make that ‘health’–industry–same sort of unaffordable long-term economic wastage means failure over time.) Second thing is that the rest of the world expects workers on the shop floor to think more and gives them more initiative than here. Better job environments overall follow from this, as does economic advantage. Third thing is that all this superfluous managerial deadwood just gets in the way by endlessly doing stupid useless things to justify their salaries–inflicting bright ideas of theirs on the rest of us (see the computer industry) hurts all of us. Academia, the educational-industrial complex, plays a critical role in promoting this stupidity because of their endless propagandizing about how a degree is a ticket to a soft-tit managerial job, and we should all of course have managerial jobs if we went to the University, right? Nobody wants to upset this applecart and have people forced to do real jobs. Useless managerial overhead is academia, now more than ever.
And then there is the great Saul D. Alinsky story that Nick von Hoffman tells in his book about him. Seems as Saul Alinsky, founder of community organizing, was, towards the end of his days, somewhat bemused by the fact that universities were now offering college courses, and degrees, Phd’s even, in community organizing, that what he had stumbled into doing because he couldn’t find work as an archaeologist had become professionalized. Alinsky talked to a university dean he was buddies with and had him get a copy of a graduate level final exam on community organizing. Alinsky sat down one day and took the test. Von Hoffman doesn’t say if Alinsky passed the test, but he does let drop that the exam had three questions in it on the theory and practice of community organizing according to Saul D. Alinsky. Alinsky missed two of them.
And then there is the arguments about liberal arts graduates being necessary because of the useful critical thinking skills that such an educational endeavor gives you. Since when is critical thinking all that valued in American society? Where is it all that useful in most any job out there? Since when do employers want employees asking questions, particularly ones that they don’t have good answers for? My take on critical thinking skills is that the real truth on how they really are regarded by the powers that be comes from a story of a school buddy of my dad’s, Anastasio Somoza. Seems that sometime in the ’50’s some well-intentioned journalist was interviewing Somoza about the overall low levels of education in Nicaragua–average educational attainment was second or third grade, that was it. The journo was concerned that this overall low level of education would make Nicaraguan peasants susceptible to communist subversion, you know. Don’t you want educated citizens, Mr. Somoza? Somoza exploded, and said, no, I don’t want educated citizens, I want cattle. Most everyone in the ruling classes thinks that, here or anywhere else, near as I can tell.
Finally is the guilt and complicity of the academy with the Cold War, and now the War on Drugs, and our endless round of glorious military adventures in the middle east. Clark Kerr used to go around dragging a sack to the California industrial bigshots, most of whom were aerospace, back during the UC salad days of the 1950’s and 1960’s. His rubber-chicken-circuit speech was about how the US was in a war, a life and death war, the Cold War, with Godless Communist Totalitarianism. The Cold War was every bit as much a war as our Deuce adventures were, he’d say, and we can no more afford to lose it than we could afford to lose to Hitler and the Nazis. To win the Cold War, he’d tell the fatcats, the University of California had a key, critical role. The UC system would do the critical scientific research in its laboratories, and train the scientists to do it, for all the scientific breakthroughs we’d need for our future weapons systems. The UC system would also train the engineers we’d need to make them. And finally the UC system would train the liberal arts graduates necessary to manage the whole operation. Therefore, please give generously. Speech worked well.
The US academy is every bit as much lost as the rest of official America is now that the Communist Bugbear has gone away. They no more have done any thinking as to what next, what should we do now, than anyone else has. They most all have unquestioningly signed on the various fraudulent wars that official America has dreamed up and implemented in the past two decades. I’ll cut the intelligentsia some slack for missing the boat about the Cold War the way they did for as long as they did. I have a very much harder time cutting them slack for their failure to examine how wrong they were for so long about the Cold War. Where are the academy’s post-mortems on themselves and the Cold War? (But you know, nobody in the world of intelligence ever got fired for things like the Team B nonsense once the facts got out, either. The fact that the Team B criminals/morons went on to positions of power in the Bush administration shows that being as wrong as you can be factually doesn’t matter to ruling elite America, provided you are wrong on the right side of the fence. Another reason to doubt education’s utility–you get to serve your country by doing what you are told, right or wrong, is ruling elite America’s view of citizenship.) I can’t cut them any for what they’ve signed off on since.
You want some of this turned into an article, let me know what you like and I’ll get to work on it. Keep up the good work–
p.s. My vote is to save In Harm’s Way from the tumbril. It’s current misuse by some does not warrant yet its demise. There is yet some worthwhile history mitigating it from extinction. John Paul Jones’ statement–“Give me a fast ship, for I aim to get in Harm’s Way” is as fine and honorable and admirable a statement of command derring-do as anyone ever said. Present misuse of the statement by the current crop of military/nattering class poltroons is a gross perversion of it. I urge a reprieve.