Maybe You Don’t Belong In College

October 11, 2007, 9:45 am; posted by
Filed under Articles, Steve  | 3 Comments

When I was at Houghton, back at the turn of the century, I was pressed into the school’s service to travel to Albany and beseech our secular elect to increase a specific financial aid program. We were successful in getting them to the $5,000 mark (our stated goal), which I’m sure had more to do with favors owed than the persuasive power of our delegation.

Of the events of that day, I best remember wishing — quite strongly, as I awkwardly balanced my lunch tray with one hand in the Capitol cafeteria — that I had remembered to bring a belt.

I tell you this to explain that I am not evil, a fact I ask you to mind as you read the next sentence.

FAR too many Americans go to college.

The four-year university has become an expensive infantilizing incubator for America’s young adults, one that extends the selfish angst of adolescence through a wasted half-decade of shirked responsibility and hedonism. Inasmuch as its focus on sex, alcohol, and sports is consistent with “real life,” it is perhaps the cause as much as the effect.

This country’s desire to increase college attendance has created a horde of clowns in gowns, proudly hoisting diplomas earned by average short-term memory and a skill for writing bright-sounding nonsense — or perhaps just an excellent aptitude for cheating. As someone who just spent three years on a university campus, I can tell you that I no longer trust the value of a four-year degree. Like Westley in The Princess Bride, “I’ve known too many Spaniards.”

As more and more unqualified, uninterested students stream through the doors of once-proud institutions, standards are lowered and curricula are changed. As Charles Murray wrote, in an article I discovered after writing half of this one, “[s]tudents who cannot follow complex arguments accurately are not really learning . . . [t]hey are taking away a mishmash of half-understood information and outright misunderstandings that probably leave them under the illusion that they know something they do not.”

Murray still assumes too much — namely, that most colleges even try to teach complex arguments to their undergraduates. Like any other business, they have adapted to the reality of the market — which demands a path broad enough to lead almost all to the goal of the degree. Businesses just hate to turn away paying customers.

Which leads me to the worst part of all: most students not only leave college no better educated, but they take away tens of thousands of dollars in crushing debt, which makes the habit of savings almost impossible to establish in those most pivotal early years. Here the cycle turns vicious, as many students who would have been best-served learning a useful skill or trade — which often pay more than ‘college’-type jobs and are frequently more rewarding — instead desperately search for a job “in their field” or out of it, anything to put food on the table and pay down the debt.

This five-year party comes with a lifelong hangover.


3 Comments to “Maybe You Don’t Belong In College”

  1. Marcus on October 11th, 2007 2:45 pm

    I could not agree more. College is the new high school and its diploma is equally useful/useless. At best, grad school has become what college used to be. At worst, it just stalls the inevitable–a job which is entirely incompatible with our liberal-arts sense of inflated entitlement.

    Don’t get me wrong, I have loved my undergrad and graduate days and I find them invaluable… but you could not be more correct. Far too many people are going to college. Our Western obsession with progress and upward mobility greatly hinders us from applauding John Q. Proletariat’s honest labor.

    We are, of course, “better” than that. We are enlightened. Heidegger is our buddy. We deserve that picket fence in the suburbs.

    And those who do not go to college all too often feel that they SHOULD have and are unable to find contentment.

    In a world where we teach our kids to reach for the stars, we puff them full of false expectations. Americans at all levels of “success” are malcontent because they feel they deserve more.

    It annoys me that my peers have to water down curricula because it would otherwise baffle Slacker Mc Undergrad. Gone is the love of truth and the quest for knowledge. In its place we have diploma factories spewing out Mickey Mouse pedagogy because that’s what the “market” demands. As an educator I find it obscene but I suppose my career choice means that I am part of the problem. If I could have my druthers, I’d only teach graduate students.

  2. David on October 11th, 2007 5:31 pm

    Excellent article.

  3. David on October 12th, 2007 4:32 pm

    …and its not just college. Kids should be allowed to opt out of public education about age 12-14 to pursue things that interest them and have a direct bearing on how they will be spending their lives. We have created a thing called “youth” here in America that delays adulthood and, as Steve pointed out, leads to a crushing load of debt when these young people follow the crowd to college. I believe that a lot of the conflict among High School age people has to do with people who are ready to be adults but are being told by society to slow down, take it easy, get an education, we’ll call you when we’re ready for you to be adults.

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