It’s About our Values, Stupid

by Elizabeth King on November 16, 2011

I have had it. This conversation about the value of college has gone absolutely off the rails. I’m so ticked this morning I’m having trouble writing coherently. I guess this makes sense, because anger is rooted in fear, and I have finally become terrified for the future of education in the United States.

I found a book review in Time the other day of Michael Ellberg’s much anticipated The Education of Millionaires. You can read the brief article and check out the absolutely infuriating comments here.

It’s worth reading, but if you’re not going to, you know need to know that  Gregorian’s article is plastered with comments from young men skewering him for pointing out that:

…what is forgotten in the discussion about dollars and cents is that the purpose of education, whatever its cost or its source, is not simply to enable one to earn a living but to prepare one for living over the course of an entire lifetime with all the ups and downs that come our way.

News Flash! Education is about preparation for living. It’s about WHAT THE HELL YOU DO ALL DAY. Education is about why you bother to get your ass out of bed, how you choose to spend your time, what you value, and how you interact with the world. It’s reflected in how you treat others—people you know and people you don’t. It’s reflected in what you have to offer the world, in the quality of work you do.

It’s also reflected in the puzzling and ubiquitous choice to subsist on a diet of ramen or BigMacs and own a 62” television with a full cable package instead of investing in nutritious food and a library card.

It’s pretty easy to make college the target: I’m sure any minute now we’ll see “I have a $120,000 degree and all I got was this lousy sweatshirt” hoodies sold on street corners. But we’re not really fighting about college, people!

We’re having a big, embarrassing, ugly fight about what we value.

If you think about it, it makes all the sense in the world that Gregorian’s readers think he’s a nut for thinking education is about preparation for life. After all, the cultural message we’ve been sending to students for decades hasn’t been saying anything like that. We’re finally seeing the product of several generations of Americans who have grown up in a consumer culture whose public education system has told them that the point of their educations is to grow up and get a job so they have money to spend on useless shit.

When the majority of signifiers of success and glory that we present to kids are based on things that don’t require excellence (Ms. Spears and Mr. Bieber, anyone?), how could we suddenly expect excellence to suddenly matter to them?  When we worship people for being beautiful and rich, not skilled and productive, why would anyone aim to be anything but beautiful and rich? Why would anyone think an education is worth anything more than the salary it puts back in their pockets?

Expensive education is laughable when the national cultural ethos revolves around Kim Karadshian and Snookie (who, unlike me, is a New York Times Bestselling Author).

Gregorian probably could have chosen a better phrase than the “ups and downs” of living. It’s a bit gee-whiz for talking about the Stuff Of Life. But that’s what’s coming to a head here. College has become an easy Wizard to stand up to, but we should be a hell of a lot more concerned with the directionless values and lever-pulling that’s going on behind the scenes that’s making us think that way.

The aftermath of dismissing an exploratory, art and literature filled education is not only going to hit each one of us in the wallet when our economy can’t keep up in global competition, but it’s also going to continue to hit us where it matters more, in the head and the heart.

In rallying about the uselessness of true education we forget why To Kill a Mockinbird is as relevant now as it was sixty years ago. We argue that the Disney Concert Hall is as important as a storage facility–never mind Ghery’s exterior. We tell Sydney Poitier to stick it and Sally Mann to hang up the camera. We tell Steve Jobs that Apple could be ugly and get along just fine. We tell 826 Valencia not to bother teaching urban youth to write creatively and Art Basel Miami to shut its doors.

We tell women to stay home.

We tell children to be seen and not heard.

Instead of lambasting someone for thinking that higher level education is about preparation for living, maybe we should shut our big traps for a second and consider that maybe it is.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Claudette November 16, 2011 at 1:21 pm

Bravo Elizabeth for this post. It is for all the reasons you list here that I lament not completing my education. I cannot believe that for most people this is even up for debate. When I think about college and what I missed, it’s missing the experience that really hits me. Last time I checked time travel is not yet available and most of us, at least I won’t, have the luxury of being a burgeoning adult again with limitless time and possibility ahead of me..the access to peers and educators interested in showing me my world and what part I can play in it, through conversations, books, lectures, drum circles, coffee houses, diagrams, research, study groups, all nighters, inspiration and example. I can only do my best today with what little time I have to fill in those gaps….but it’s very very difficult. Education is so valuable, it’s priceless.

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Elizabeth King November 16, 2011 at 1:33 pm

It’s easy to see how the uselessness of college might be the campaign of the spoiled, entitled, and lucky. Now, look– the one thing that I didn’t address in this thing is that not all educational experiences are equal. It’s perfectly fair to say that some college experiences leave a lot to be wished for. But at the end of the day, what both you and I are talking about is education as it should be and a culture and economy that supports it. If we had that, the debate would be moot.

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Joe Martino November 17, 2011 at 12:30 pm

My friend Michelle Luce introduced me to you a few months back and I cannot say how happy I am that she did. I find myself nodding my head in agreement over and over again with your writings. Great post.

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Akil Bello November 20, 2011 at 9:50 pm

been a while since I commented and thats my bad.

as usual you hit the nail on the head. you need to tweet your blog rants (i mean posts)!

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LeBonBon November 29, 2011 at 3:44 pm

Alright, so education for life is important. True. ***BUT*** —> Nobody needs to spend the equivalent of a home mortgage to get schooled on art, history, or culture. A more novel way to attain an even better education is to explore the world for 4 years minus the outrageous debt that many college students and graduates are saddled with paying for years and years. What more? College is too confined. Just how much can a student expect to get from stale, overused PowerPoint lectures from tenured professors who mostly live in a bubble writing obscure academic fluff? Worse? What can you really expect to gain from reading another book, doing another half-asleep discussion among students who mostly haven’t done anything in their life yet, except school? Not tackling college as a vocational step forward makes the trip an insanely expensive hobby. It’s obvious that 90% of students are in college for the purpose of attaining a degree for a job (take a look at jobs demanding “college degree required”). Gee, to inflate college as a kind and saintly place to learn about life (you are kidding? a college campus is a vacation mecca with amenities galore)? You must have the luxury of being one of the 1%, with money to burn at your leisure. Originally, college was just that! It was a place for the wealthy leisure class to send their kids for a four year social romp (like a rite of passage). Honestly, it still is just that! The other 99% ought to break the cycle, do something wacky different and skip college. Scholarship can be obtained on your own. I’d rather use $100k to take my own grand tour of the world for 4yrs to engage directly with culture and history. I’d return with a real education not outlined or filtered by an absent-minded professor (or, more common today – a TA! or seriously underpaid adjunct).

Mind you, I speak from experience. College? Been there, done that. Did I seriously enjoy the content from my trip through liberal arts? Most certainly! I double majored in Classics and Geography, took a wealth of science electives, and took two study abroad excursions (one to France to study architecture in the Loire Valley, second trip to Italy to study Italian art/culture). However, I could have got a better education on my own at a more reasonable price. All of the required readings? Everything’s online. Need to find expert mentors and people highly engaged in a topic for discussion? All can be found online and these people are usually excited to play a consultant role for free. Instead of sitting on my ass in a classroom, memorizing to hoop jump for a silly degree, I could have been participating in a more ACTIVE EDUCATION. I recall taking a class about 16th Century Italian art thinking I should drop these sleepy classes asap and go to Italy to see these marvels at once. No, no, no! I stuck through the uninspiring lectures as I’m supposed to do. If I left (like I should have done), I’d still be stuck with the bill and nothing to show for it.

After doing a cost vs. benefit analysis? Realize that college was extremely overrated. The only folks that actually need to be there are the STEM majors.

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Elizabeth King November 29, 2011 at 4:22 pm

Hi there! I think it’s interesting that you took the time to write all this but didn’t use your real name. That practically never happens here.

I just have a few questions for you.

You write, “Just how much can a student expect to get from stale, overused PowerPoint lectures from tenured professors who mostly live in a bubble writing obscure academic fluff?” Who are these tenured academic fluff-writing professors? What is “academic fluff?” Where are these PowerPoints happening?

“Gee, to inflate college as a kind and saintly place to learn about life (you are kidding? a college campus is a vacation mecca with amenities galore)?” I’m a little confused here by your use of question marks. Are you saying college is a vacation mecca?

“You must have the luxury of being one of the 1%, with money to burn at your leisure.” Actually, no. At the time my family was really struggling and my mother took a job sweeping floors and running a cash register to help put me through school. Moreover, this isn’t a personal debate and you weaken the strength of your argument when you attack me personally. I’m not sure if that’s a lesson one learns in college or in the “real world.”

“However, I could have got a better education on my own at a more reasonable price.” I should leave that alone.

Did you grow up in an academic family where you learned to be so auto-didactic? Did you go to a great high school? As far as I can tell, that’s where these college-dropouts need to come from to expect to do well. When people talk about the college debate it sounds like there are so many latent Good Will Huntings out there. Are there, really? (Matt Damon is obviously one of them who managed to do just what you describe. More power to him.)

…but you’re right. I did receive an extraordinary education. I did so at a women’s college, where I didn’t get stuck listening to Power Points and was never in a class taught by a TA. I made that choice because I spent a lot of time arguing with boys in high school and thought it might make sense to focus on my own education. Besides, the kinds of graduates women’s colleges turn out are consistently extraordinary. I maintain relationships with some of my professors to this day–none of whom are “absent minded.” Moreover, I went to a Seven Sisters school, all of which make financial commitments to their students to make attendance affordable. The choice to attend a women’s college was probably one of the best I’ve ever made. This means that I walked away with well under $20K in loans after (what was at the time) a $120,000 education (since you were wondering about my finances).

Doing something whacky and skipping college can be an great plan–for some exceedingly brilliant, motivated, driven people. ….but it’s not a great choice for most women, not for most minorities, and not for most young men, either.

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LeBonBon December 8, 2011 at 6:50 pm

Oh no, you’ve drank the Kool-aid served by higher education!

Obvious to most humanities majors, you learned how to bullshit but cannot grasp the reality of the current situation that college students face. If you tried to look at this problem in a results-oriented manner, you would see that students are getting severely price-gouged to take frivolous coursework. Most people cannot attend college without taking on loaded debt. Think debt that gives a graduate a $600+ bill every month for 10+ years that has to be paid in addition to that person’s rent/mortgage payment and all other bills.

Are you THAT out-of-touch to think that school is worth its repulsive financial cost to students?

Please remove yourself from the confines of the ivory tower and take a look at practical reality.

College is creating financial enslavement for many students such as those minorities that you speak of. It’s far more likely that those repressed groups are attending sub-par schools while paying a lofty sum of money (which accrues interest), for a piddly degree that will not pay off. It sucks to have to think about finances, doesn’t it? While it is beneficial for repressed groups to expand their knowledge of the humanities, that kind of exploration will not secure rudimentary necessities such as food and shelter. Yes, I’m sure these repressed groups benefit from repaying exorbitant loans that don’t financially pay off.

And, if you’re wondering, colleges aren’t welcoming every soul that wants to attend. Gee, do you think schools repress minorities? Of course they do! They set up stringent admittance policies that act as entry barriers. Colleges aren’t interested in educating everyone, so they select those that will inflate the school’s brand reputation. So, stop idealizing college. These places are loaded with hypocrisy, not to mention exploitation of student’s naivety. If colleges were really set on living up to their idealism, they would be far more welcoming. But, they’d never do that! Selectivity is in place to create an air of exclusivity which inflates the price point they can demand (Marketing 101). Sure, they are socially philanthropic to a point, hence, MIT offers open-courseware (delivers great publicity as an outreach service).

While only a few students gain admittance to an upper-tier school, plenty of people are heading to college who should not be there. Those that really can’t pay shouldn’t be there unless some kind soul is forking over a full-ride scholarship for the experience. These folks are probably chasing this stupid college quest through sub-par for-profit institutions. On the other end, you have freshly admitted students committing financial suicide to get into their reach school (NYU commonly fits here). Why is this so? It’s as easy as signing one’s name to be granted financial ‘aid’ (cough! cough! loans loans, not grants). Okay, that will really help underprivileged groups get ahead.

At this time, college is a poor investment (unless a STEM major, but even medical students are taking on a risky investment). No matter what you want to believe, most college participants are there to get credentials to get ahead in the private sector, to get a job. Still, many ivory tower goof’s will yack away that their institution doesn’t exist for vocational purposes (yeah right! then how do they lure private-sector investments/grants?). Tell that to the English grad’ that is working as an administrative assistant (do you need a college degree to do that?). Tell that to all the current law school graduates who are scraping a living on minimum wage in an unrelated field. But yeah, stick to the bullshit myths that college is a necessary experience to be had at all costs.

If college, as it exists in the United States, was such a sure bet? College loans would not exist, or might carry zero interest. Our benevolent leaders have set up legal entrapment for student borrowers. Is it really smart for our youth to graduate and start out life with debt as large as a mortgage? How do you pay two mortgages each month on one salary? What previous generation started out life like that? You do realize those loans are exempt from bankruptcy protections, while consumer debt can be wiped clean (what an oddity!!!).

I’m trying to get it into your thick skull that college is a debt trap for a large percentage of students (those who graduate and those who don’t). College is not a utopian ideal place. Universities have to meet financial demands that are dumped onto students backs (fine, if students can pay out of pocket, but most cannot do that). Just take a look at the recent protests carried out at Berkeley (yeah, I’m sure those paying students needed to be tear gassed). Maybe you are not aware of this?

Those wonderful idealistic colleges recruit international students like mad. I wonder why? They pay the highest rates to attend. Gee, it doesn’t matter that the student can barely speak English, the schools don’t care since they’re a revenue pot of gold.

Hmmm, it’s obvious that humanities wouldn’t be able to stay afloat if these departments weren’t subsidized by the hard sciences, and all the warm bodied undergrads filling seats to hoop jump through a poetry or philosophy class (those subjects don’t need to cost a few grand a pop to learn).

Thinking in a purely practical manner, college is a very bad investment that ends up being a huge sunk cost for so many participants. Sorry if you feel that college is priceless, but those in the real world know that college has become a huge financial burden outweighing the experience. That’s a burden that our society has to bear. So, don’t preach the pony noble college marketing hype that doesn’t refute reality. College is scamming millions of students in this country (ex. student loan bubble that reflects the sub-prime mortgage crisis).

But, you think an entire generation locked into serfdom is good for society.
Mmm, okay.

Really big changes need to be made in the higher education industry if you want this ivory tower experience to prevail into the future.

Personally, I won’t be holding my breath waiting for that to happen.

I’d suggest that future university students become citizens in Denmark, where an educated society is valued much more than it is here (funded through taxation, obviously). Or, maybe it’s credential-ism that’s valued? Doesn’t matter, I still think any industrious person can learn on their own. Widespread internet access offers a platform to democratize knowledge to anyone that wants it. Do you think formal institutionalized learning is totally necessary for self-education on most subjects? Tell that to Abraham Lincoln who had less than a year and a half of formal schooling. If an expensive school is totally necessary, how did people learn a hundred years ago?

Ben Franklin – lifelong learner, no formal education beyond age 10.

Socrates? I don’t think he had an accredited degree, but he was quite an influence.

Hemingway, largely self-taught. (oh, but no you can’t be a renowned writer without a degree!!!!)

Jane Jacobs – activist, and major contributor of ideas on urban planning, took courses at leisure through Colombia University (pre-internet days, so although she did take university classes, she might have simply used online sources today). I mention Jacobs because she self-initiated her own scientific scholarship, all without following any formal academic plan as arranged by some snooty university.

Joseph Campbell, mythologist chose to not continue his formal education and he was a strong advocate of self-education.

So, while college can be beneficial (it’s an idealistic environment that many escape into for pricey grad school), you can’t boast that its an absolute necessity (that’s a big college marketing myth). Worse, college, as it is today, is contributing to a HUGE financial burden on an entire generation. Higher ed’ isn’t as brilliant as it believes itself to be. It needs a major evolution to fit in with the 21st century.

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Michael E. Gruen December 8, 2011 at 11:01 pm

“So, while college can be beneficial (it’s an idealistic environment that many escape into for pricey grad school), you can’t boast that its an absolute necessity (that’s a big college marketing myth).”

That’s not what Elizabeth’s saying. She’s saying that our culture emphasizes education as a conduit to a job rather than a perspective for life. You don’t need to go to college to get a good job—but, attending college is expected. So, to fill the market need for more college education, more colleges are founded to educate the spillover of those who don’t make it to the MITs. Quality goes down, but it doesn’t have to: it goes down because all people feel entitled to something we call a *college education* without wanting to work at it.

Education is what you make of it and structured learning (for those who want it) can be a great mechanism for gaining perspective on the world. Similarly, you can go hang out in a gym for a few hours, but unless you’re working out—and working hard—you’re not going to see any meaningful returns from your gym membership.

Are you going to blame the gym for taking people’s money and failing to produce rock-hard bodies? Because it certainly sounds like that’s what you’re doing. Remember, pushups and eating well do not require a gym membership.

(Side note: ~30% of the population have a Bachelor’s Degree and about ~15% have gym memberships. I find it to be an excellent analogy.)

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