I hate credentials and credential-obsessed people. Though I list my college degrees on the “about” page of the blog, it’s more just to explain my biography. I certainly don’t expect anyone to listen to me simply because of some silly degree. Besides, I know more, for instance, about bone marrow transplant medicine, than I’ve ever known about the law, but I am un-credentialed in BMT medicine, while I’ve got a law degree and passed the bar. Nobody cares what I know about BMT medicine, but everybody I run into thinks I can answer any question, no matter how arcane, about the law. It’s utter foolishness.
(Okay, a few somebodies care what I learned about BMT medicine–namely my son, who has had two of them, and his mother and the rest of his loved ones. I used what I had learned during his first transplant and in subsequent study afterwards to be able to quite effectively manage his care during the second one. The BMT doctors didn’t much like having to answer to a patient/caregiver who actually knew what he was talking about, and could read right through their bullshit, but that was their problem, not mine. I think it made them fearful. Which is fine. Fear is as good a motivation for doing one’s job as anything.)
Virginia Hefferman of Yahoo! News (the first thing Marissa Mayer should have done when she took over Yahoo! is change the stupid name–it may have once been cutsie, but now just looks, well, yahooish) asks the question: What would it be like if nobody cared where, or even if, someone went to college? The answer, resoundingly, is that society would be much better off. And that abandoning the fetish just might finally burst the insane college degree bubble, here’s a quote from the article, about how things might look after the college bubble bursts:
You’d bring glory or ignominy to your family the old-fashioned way: through your contributions to society and your interactions with your fellows. The glory/ignominy die would not be cast when you were 17, by a letter of admission or rejection. Imagine.
You’d read, do problem sets and hear lectures as needed or desired—in reading groups, at workshops, on the road, at community programs, at corporate programs, at museums and libraries and above all on the Internet. You’d study not to get a credential; you’d study to improve your mind or acquire a skill, the same reason you go to karate, yoga or mandolin class.
If you happened to be the rare type who loves nothing more than to study liberal arts—if you were scholarly and somewhat monastic by nature—you might raise the money and enroll in an affordable college with some like-minded students and a good library. This choice and expense would no more reflect on your social status than it would if you went to an ashram, a kibbutz or the Marines for a few years.
Rather than rely on the shorthand (“Georgetown,” “Syracuse”) that was once supposed to be a stamped ticket to the professional class (but never was), prospective employers would devise their own tests to find viable hires.
My son (the transplant patient) is in his first semester at Auburn. He hasn’t a clue as to what he hopes to accomplish. I pleaded with him that he should just delay school and bum around awhile at odd jobs or volunteering or whatever until he figured things out. He had raced (which, with his physical challenges was more like a slow crawl), to keep up with his high school class, even after undergoing a bone marrow transplant his sophomore year, all just so he could graduate on time. It was hell on him. I asked him at the time to consider just skipping a year and going back when he felt better. No, he insisted that he had to keep up–that he owed it to his friends and classmates to do so. I wanted to ask, but didn’t, what he expected would be the reward for having done so? He won’t be getting to heaven any sooner because he finished high school on time. And most high school friends are simply accidents of geography and time (or “spacetime” as the physicists would put it). Nor is he getting to heaven any sooner for having started college with no real idea in mind as to why, except that everyone else was doing it. Of course, my protestations fell on deaf ears. Everyone in the extended family still believes, against mountains of evidence to the contrary, that a college degree is the ticket to the good life. So I get to stack a hundred grand in a pile and watch it burn. What a sweet deal is this 21st century parenting gig.
It is quite frustrating to see the paradigm so resolutely shift and yet to have everyone around me singularly deny such a thing has happened. All those studies on the long-term value of a college degree are irrelevant now. As they say in the stock market, past performance is not an indicator of future value. The worm has turned. College is just a waste of time and money. How can people not see it? College kids are working as waiters and waitresses–after they get their degrees–not to put themselves through school. Uncle Sam put ’em through school with loans piled as high as the dishes stacked in their tubs as they make their way back to the kitchen from cleaning off the tables.
It will cost roughly $20,000 per year for my son to waste the next four years. I told him that I would instead give him the money to start a business, or put a down payment on a house, or whatever, if he just wanted to go to work and actually learn how to do something other people will pay him to do. Isn’t that the point of college? And aren’t colleges failing miserably at the task? (An historical aside–a long time ago, college simply prepared one for life, with a general education that mainly taught people how to think. They now pretend to teach them how to do. They were at one time reasonably competent at the former, but have been singularly abysmal at the latter.)
Why not, instead of wasting four years at what amounts to an extended overnight summer camp (except with girls and booze, happily paid for by gullible parents), a kid starts from the ground floor of some business in which he’s interested, getting the knowledge that only experience can provide? For instance, if he thinks he might like to be in the restaurant/food service business, he could start with washing dishes right out of high school (or even before), eventually working his way up to waiter. He might even make manager by the time his peers graduate college (in six or so forlorn years, with mountains of debt piled on their backs). Who knows, they might even be asking him for a job, as the college boys find the last six years partying after football games never really prepared them for anything the market would be willing to pay them to do. A few years later, and he might be opening up his own restaurant, something out of the reach of his college peers, burdened as they are with the debt it took to get a degree. (But maybe not–Obama is so heavily invested with academia that I expect he might issue a college loan jubilee once it becomes apparent these kids can’t pay their loans back).
Popping the college degree myth and bubble would, by and large, be a good thing. All those years I spent in college never taught me much of anything. Yes, a college degree opened some doors and gave me the contours to some specific knowledge that I later found useful. But everything that I ever really learned, I learned through experience and goal-directed self-study. In the meantime, I watch the dollars burn.