College: What’s it for anyway?

I recently came across an article in the New York Times, written by Gary Gutting, questioning the value of higher education in today’s society. He argued that “colleges and universities are primarily vehicles for the preservation, development and transmission of our intellectual culture (scientific, humanistic and artistic)”. Otherwise, there is no point to these establishments. Since I wrote a post on the value of my own degree, I obtained a part-time job working for small (15-20 employees) distribution company for the magnetic and electronics industry. I work in their customer service/sales department, and I am only here because a friend of mine (who also works here) told me about a temporary opening. While that job is part-time, the two days of the week that I am not in the office I substitute teach as an Instructional Aide, which only requires at least 40 college credits and passing  a TB test. I still want to pursue a job in an artistic field, but those come around as often as Cicadas during a humid Southern spring.

However, I’m going back to school in the fall to pursue Speech Pathology and hopefully I’ll publish a book as I am paying off my student loans with my “normal” career. Ass-backwards? Probably, but one alternative is to marry a 30-year-old with an established career, pop out his kids, and write crappy vampire novels that miraculously get published, earning me an incomprehensible amount of money. My inner feminist would give me a swift kick to the rear if I did that. I’m happy that I discovered a back-up plan, a topic and a career that interests me and one that I have a feeling I will enjoy. I could write the next 1984, but if people are more interested in reading about sparking vampires there’s no place for me in the world of writing fiction, nor entertainment.

Pursuits of intellectualism are by far one of the greatest things that a person can do. It opens up our mind to art, to other cultures, and to the plight of man. We live in a world where going to college is the super-mom of preparing ourselves for the work place, and having a degree, or being in the process of obtaining a degree, has now become synonymous with work positions even as low as unpaid internships, especially in the film industry. Degrees are attractive to employers because they show a certain amount of moral character; the ability to work hard and to achieve a long-term end goal. These degrees are a sort of official seal stamped on our brains to make these pursuits of intellectualism legitimate, regardless of the GPA one earns. Why bother working for that 4.0 when you can graduate with a 2.0?

The first emergence of a university can be traced back to the medieval ages, where the institution consisted solely of monks/priests who mainly studied affairs of the secular order such as scripture. It expanded to reach younger persons, usually 13 to 16 years of age, whom were more than likely part of the upper-class. They embarked on an educational track called the trivium, where they studied Latin grammar and literature, rhetoric and law, and logic for four to seven years, depending on when they completed their studies, and awarded a Bachelor of Arts degree upon completion. The students could then go on to earn a Masters or a PhD, called quadrivium. These degrees were simply an achievement marker, which meant a student could now instruct others in the process of obtaining their BA.

The basic structure of higher-education has changed some-what over the centuries, except that it is more readily accessible and there is a plethora of majors to choose from: Math, Philosophy, Screenwriting, Theater, Women’s Studies, etc. There are some colleges that let students create their own majors, such as the Johnston College at the University of Redlands. (One gentleman in 2009 – my graduating class – graduated with a BA in “The Angry Tinker: Getting Radical”. To this day, I have no idea what he actually studied.) Specific careers require an undergraduate degree and beyond, such as medicine, psychology, and education, but others need specialized training at a trade school, like auto mechanics. Trade schools careers are not as high up on the social totem pole and often do not give students a Bachelor’s degree, but an auto mechanic generally earns more than an assistant position with a Hollywood agency that requires a degree, sometimes up to $20,000 more per year. Isn’t getting a degree supposed to put you in a higher tax bracket, theoretically?

In two generations our country has managed to make obtaining any salaried entry-level job near impossible without a 4-year degree, and while the amount college-bound adults has increased to epic proportions, having one in today’s society is like having a high school diploma during the early 20th century – everyone has one. Gutting makes a good argument by saying:

This sort of intellectual and moral training, however, does not require studying with experts doing cutting-edge work on, say, Homeric poetry, elementary particle theory or the philosophy of Kant. It does not, that is, require the immersion in the world of intellectual culture that a college faculty is designed to provide. It is, rather, the sort of training that ought to result from good elementary and high school education.

High school is supposed to provide this and did provide this at one point – in the early 20th century. There was a practicality to the classes that were offered in high school, especially elective classes such as “shop”, cooking, etc, but the public school system in the United States has always been a volatile one. The 60’s and 70’s saw an uprising of elective classes, which had been virtually non-existent in the 50’s. By the 80’s, however, educators were worried that there was a correlation between these “fun” classes and declining standardized test scores. College educators began to demand that remedial classes in English, math, etc be mandatory classes for those high school students entering college whom were not up the par with the rest of the student population. Many of these people believed that 13 percent of America’s high school seniors were “functionally illiterate”; they could not understand basic instructions or fill out a job application. Other outlets blamed for this decline in intelligence were too much TV and easier course curriculum, which contributed to the “dumbing-down” of the population.

It would seem the same arguments for the decline in the public high-school education system still hold a lot of their value today, with the added distractions of cell phones, video games, iPods, etc. Spell-check makes it so that we do not have to actually learn to spell most hard words, or even learn proper grammar, although it would seem that even built-in web browsing spell-checkers do not stop the mass populace from making ghastly errors on their tweets and Facebook status updates. One quick look through The Best Obnoxious Responses to Misspellings on Facebook can make this idea of “dumbing-down” the population seems catastrophic.

If we accept the idea that an individual needs a degree to get a well-paying job, then theoretically the richest men and women in the world should have a PhD and score so high on IQ tests that they blow Einstein out of the water. One channel change over to MTV clearly proves this idea false. There is a greater value, almost to the point of obsession, placed on those who have the courage to have their personalities displayed and manipulated for the sole purpose of the general public’s entertainment, whether they are liked or ridiculed for their brilliant displays of primitive human behavior. Snookie made her fortune from drinking enough to knock a grown Irish man out cold. Meyers can wipe her ass with hundred-dollar bills from the unimaginative vampire books she wrote.* It took seven separate people to write “Oh baby, baby, nooooo” lyrics to a Justin Bieber song…and they got paid for it. The new standard – it doesn’t matter how unintelligent you are/seem/sound/smell/blink. If the majority of people like you, then you’ll have no need to go to college to get that well-paying job.** Entertainment is not synonymous with intellectualism, and it goes without saying that it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

Intellectualism: Who needs a college degree when the general public serves as your own personal money tree?

Lets be realistic – for the majority of young people graduating from college today a degree will only get them so far as a cubical job and mounts of student debt paid off at a snail’s pace with mediocre wages. Our culture of consumerism has infested our university system, with all types of colleges across the board raising tuition to offset slashed funding or to dig itself out of debt. Our idealistic view of the college degree no longer aligns with reality. I think it’s time that we adjust our understanding of what a college degree can and cannot do for us.

I don’t have answers as to how all this can be fixed because I don’t think it can, at least not any time soon. Technology and consumerism had shapped our culture and society in more complex ways than we can begin to understand right now. What can we do as individuals? Take pride in intelligence and learn something new everyday…and for god’s sake, READ! With that said, I’m proud of the hard work I put in to obtain my two degress. I earned those things and the student debt I put myself in to achevie them was worth it. I just wish the economy didn’t tank right as I was getting to graduate with a BA.

*While she does have a college degree, she took the 1950’s route and used it as a way to find a husband and pop out his kids.

**There still are legitimate artists out in the world who are severely brilliant and deserve all the money they have earned, college degree or not. Cultural contribution needs to be taken into account in both instances.

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One thought on “College: What’s it for anyway?

  1. You are an intellectual. You are a deep thinker. Which balances with those who just do without thinking. We need both in the world. However, in today’s world, we reward do’ers more rather than thinkers. This is somewhat different than pre industrial revolution times. Its the path that you are on. Debt, money are not your decision drivers. Intellectual pursuit is. That’s great. We need more people who are unencumbered by the day to day considerations of life. Stay this way as long as you can. I was like that myself until my late twenties. Then once I got my mortgage, I lost my innocence and now I am just another number ploughing through life with a job trying to make a living. I plan to go back though…Perhaps once I have saved enough money…Well, that is if I dont marry and have kids. 🙂

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