The Demise of Higher Education

Unknown-3A friend asked for my opinion on an article on AlterNet, How Higher Education in the US Was Destroyed in 5 Basic Steps, by Debra Leigh Scott.

The article strikes me as somewhat paranoid, but more importantly, I think it thoroughly misses the real problem. I would call it How Higher Education in the US Was Destroyed in One Basic Step.

Allow me to digress for a moment.

My father was born in 1913, right around the time the first radio stations in the country started to transmit. Horses still delivered blocks of ice to “ice boxes” in the apartments in New York City, and he and his brothers would camp overnight in Central Park, and canoe up the Hudson river.

His father died while my father was in high school, and when the school presented him with some technical barrier to graduation (yes, even in 1920 they were doing that), despite his high marks, he dropped out without a diploma and went to work to help support the family. He worked at hard manual labor with the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s, joined the Army toward the end of WWII, and eventually acquired his surveyor’s and professional engineer’s licenses studying on his own. He joined the US Geological Survey, and surveyed land throughout Arizona and other Western states; he rode horses, shot rattlesnakes, climbed mountains, and camped in the rough. He eventually joined the state Highway Department, and then moved to a desk job with the state after he married. He was 42, and without a high school diploma when I was born.

Although he was one of the first computer programmers in the state, and managed the computing department for a short period, he started to complain about all the “college kids” who were moving past him for promotions and raises through the 1960’s. Eventually, his job was put on the line, and so he finally acquired a General Equivalency Diploma to keep his employment. But his career was stalled. Without a college diploma in the 1960’s, he had no hope of advancement within the state bureaucracy.

Ms. Scott begins her analysis of the decline of higher education in 1971, as a conservative backlash against the “troublemakers” or “springboards of dissent” represented by the university system. I believe the decline started in 1944 with the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, otherwise known as the “G.I. Bill” that offered funding for a college education to every honorably discharged soldier and officer who fought in WWII.

There’s a simple fact that no one wants to admit, but it remains a fact. It is this: not everyone is cut out for college. Not everyone is prepared to enter college, and not everyone benefits from it, and by no means should everyone who attends college, graduate with a college diploma. “Education” at the university level has always been a pursuit of the elites, financial and intellectual. That is what a university education has always been about, going back to the first universities in Italy and Portugal in the 1100’s. It’s how universities have ranked themselves.

Prior to the G.I Bill, college admission was a rigorous process, and most people did not make the cut, if they even attempted it — and most did not. In 1940, according to the US Census, a little over 20% of US citizens over 25 years of age had a high school diploma, and perhaps 5% had any kind of college degree; many of those were two-year “business” degrees. Four-year baccalaureate degrees were rare, and college graduates and their professors were generally viewed as “eggheads” (my father’s word for them) with little practical experience or usefulness in worldly pursuits.

I recall reading C.S. Lewis’ account of his entry into academia, which began with his father’s efforts to make something worthwhile of his son, and his final despair and decision to see if the professors could make a scholar of the boy, since he clearly wasn’t good for anything else. In those days, tenured professors were often “penured” professors as well, living in university housing, often two to a room (as in C.S. Lewis’ case) and eating in the common dining hall to save on expenses. It was common in the early 1900’s for men to put off marriage until they could afford to raise a family: many academics remained unmarried throughout their lives because they could never afford family life.

The G.I Bill changed academia, fundamentally. Universities now faced a straightforward conflict of interest. If they kept their standards as high as they had, geared to a steady flux of no more than the top 5% of the population, all that beautiful government money would go elsewhere.

That was what started the unravelling of higher education.

Beginning in the 1950’s, colleges and universities began to tacitly lower their standards, in order to admit, attempt to educate, and eventually graduate not the 5% elite of the nation, but the masses of common soldiers from every kind of background with government tuition checks in their hands.

It got worse in the 1960’s and into the 1970’s, as the Vietnam War groaned on and on, and “college deferment” became an alternative to running for the Canadian border to avoid conscription. College was now a sanctuary, and extended education — indefinitely extended education — became a goal in its own right. The veterans who returned from Vietnam had a college education waiting for them, as well.

I remember talking with teachers at a local community college in the early 1980’s, dealing with returned Vietnam veterans who would not bother to show up for class. The teachers were — according to my contacts — squeezed by their own administration to count the students present anyway, and to pass them, so that the school would not lose the students’ government-paid tuition.

Yes, that’s called institutional fraud. That is precisely what conflicts-of-interest promote.

So it’s really quite simple: the government bribed universities to lower their standards. The universities took the money and complied, and grew sleek and very, very fat. Now they  are addicted to the government and corporate money, and complain (as Ms. Scott does) about “funding cuts” and corruption of the curricula through threats to the money supply.

Well, you don’t get hooked on heroin if you don’t start using it. The entire university system in the US started shooting up the green stuff seventy years ago, and its current state of addiction is now considered “normal.” As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, I think the investors are going to pull out before too much longer, and the entire system is going to go into withdrawal shock. We’ll see how much of it survives.

A second and far more serious factor is also in play. The United States has always had the Calvinist and Puritan ethic that, “Idle hands do the Devil’s work;” that work is virtue, and virtue is work; that if you don’t work, you don’t deserve to eat.

That plays out one way in a subsistence-level agrarian society, such as those of the early European settlers in North America, where “work” for nearly all of the population relates directly to food production. Someone who refuses to work makes the harvest smaller, and if people then have to go hungry, the slackers obviously belong on the very top of the list to be disinvited to dinner.

In a prosperous urban society, where nearly all “work” generates, not food, but economic trinkets that can be traded for food, this plays out very differently. As we discovered in the Great Depression, we could have bumper crops but no markets for economic trinkets — that is, plenty of food, but no work to “justify” feeding people.

People were well aware of the trend toward less work in the 1950’s. If you recall, George Jetson’s job was to commute to work in his flying car so that he could press the big button that started all the machines, then put his feet on his desk until his boss came in to yell at him. Numerous “futurists” talked about the “end of work,” and science fiction stories dealt with the question of what becomes of a society after the work ethic passes, particularly in the many, many stories about sophisticated “thinking” robots.

This hasn’t proceeded quite as quickly as people thought it would in the 1950’s, but one of the reasons we continue to extend childhood into an ever-extending adolescence — now up to a child’s mid-30’s, for some adult-children these days — is that we have run out of “work.”

Approximately 5% of the population in the US produces enough food for the other 95%, plus trade exports. I’d have to guess at how many secondary jobs are associated with enabling that 5% — fossil fuel production, mining, farm machinery, trucking — but I can’t believe it comes anywhere near 50%. Let’s say 30%. The remaining 70% of the population produces economic trinkets purely to justify their right to eat that food. Software and iPads. Movies and Fox News. Marketing schemes. Financial speculation. Reports. More reports. Paper clips for the reports. Magnets to collect paper clips.

It doesn’t take much of an economic hiccup for that majority to lose their right to eat. A trinket becomes unpopular, a plant closes, and all those trinket experts are out of work. Maybe a new plant opens halfway across the country, and they can pull up roots and move — or perhaps no new plant opens, no new jobs are available, and so they beg, or they starve.

Indeed, so Byzantine is our economic machinery that even those who produce the food are barred from eating it. When I was on Long Island in the 1980’s, there was a huge issue with the migrant labor that dug up potatoes, one of the crops grown on the island. Prices were bad that year — it wasn’t “profitable” for the farm owners to sell the potatoes, and they decided to let the potatoes rot in the fields. The migrant labor was, of course, not paid for work they didn’t do, but they were also prevented from digging up the potatoes for their own sustenance. They started to starve, right there, 50 miles from Manhattan, a stone’s throw from food that no one else wanted, that they were willing to dig up for themselves, while the county sheriff and deputies stood by with guns to prevent “looting.”

Work is not virtue in our society. Work is permission.

The problem is, we’re running out of permission. So we’re starting to ration it — not the food, but the permission to eat the food — and one way we do this by means of educational credentials.

It isn’t that a typical undergraduate education in any way prepares or qualifies someone for a job. It’s simply that when a single job opens, and the human resources agent has over two thousand applicants, one quick (and legal) way to reduce the pile is to sort it by educational credentials and grade-point average, then throw out the bottom one thousand, nine hundred eighty applications.

I suspect that this was the rationale for forcing my father to get his GED. If he worked as a senior employee with no high school diploma, the hiring staff could not get away with culling high-school dropouts from the application lists. It’s only a guess on my part, but it would be consistent with other things I’ve seen in the work world.

So higher educational institutions now have yet another conflict-of-interest. They have become the means of rationing permission to eat. Which means that, ethically, they have an implicit obligation to accept, educate, and graduate every last person in the country, regardless of preparation or ability. Furthermore, they must do so in such a way as to guarantee future work for each of their graduates. They must somehow do this in a society that does not have enough work to begin with.

This problem has nothing whatsoever to do with education. You can’t fix it with a curriculum change. You can’t fix it with Pell grants or scholarships. You can’t fix it with reduced interest on student loans, or even legislation that absolves all students of their debts. You can’t fix it with graduation quotas.

The problem is that the moral foundation of the country is no longer remotely congruent with our practical reality. Work is no longer virtue, and hasn’t been for a long time: work has become an entirely arbitrary permission to live, and education has become an equally arbitrary throttle used to ration that permission.

So where is this going to lead? It’s useful, I think, to go back (again) to our three possible futures.

In future 1, where EROEI is substantially lower than at present and we go back to herding goats, this entire first-world problem vanishes. No one will have a university education. Few will have any education at all, or their letters, or their maths. Life will return to a subsistence agrarian level, and our Puritan morality may actually do us some good.

In future 2, where EROEI is about the same as ours and sustainable, or future 3, where EROEI is much higher than ours, we will need to solve this problem. Only a small fraction of the population will be doing survival-useful work. The rest will not.

In both cases, it seems pretty obvious to me that we need to recapture a robust concept of “commonwealth,” and in doing so, recognize that there are certain things that are the common (and shared) birthright of every person born — things that cannot be bought or sold, but are maintained as fundamental rights by tradition, custom, law, and common effort.

Those must — in our reality, not that of the seventeenth century Puritans — include air, water, food, and education. Only the most extreme of free-market fanatics want to capture, own, and sell air. The very thought is obnoxious. In our society — not seventeenth century Puritan society — the same can be said of food, and of education.

Though self-evident, I think it’s equally self-evident that our dysfunctional society is not going to turn in that direction any time soon.

So my advice to young people facing this issue first-hand right now is to focus on finding your own permission to live. Stop asking. If you can’t find a job, figure out how to make one. If you can’t make one, get together with some unemployed friends and figure it out together.

A distant relation of mine lost his job in an impacted area back East, and had no prospects at all. Having nothing to do, and no money, he started meeting with other people in exactly the same situation, and they eventually formed a non-profit that collects money from donors and uses it to help laid-off workers stay fed, clothed, healthy, and sane. It’s been a fast-growing enterprise, and he’s found it to be very satisfying — and useful — work.

There are needs out there. Every need is an opportunity. Every opportunity is your permission to live, if you see it and act on it.

Start there. And then, if going to college makes sense in that context, go to college.


Reading this through after coffee this morning, it sounds like I revere the old “elites-only” educational system. Sorry about that. I don’t.

My point is merely that if you’re going to compare the old with the new, as in “how higher education was destroyed in five easy steps,” you need to recognize that the universities of 1940 were catering to less than five percent of the population: that five percent were either rich (and therefore, had adequate opportunity to prepare for university), or were the very brightest and most academically driven students in the country. In 2000, the universities were catering to over twenty percent of the population, who were in general more poorly-prepared within a declining public educational system.

There is no possible way for universities to exhibit these numbers without lowering their standards. The question is, why did they do so? The answer is, I think, obvious: they did it for the money.

It might also sound like I think the G.I. Bill was a bad idea. I do, but only because I think higher education should be available to everyone in the country, not just military veterans. But along with that, universities need to pitch themselves back to the 5% — or 10%, or 20% — of the population that can actually benefit from a university education. And that cannot happen unless higher education is not the only gateway into a decent living wage.

A recent headline blared the following: “Back to College — The Only Gateway to the Middle Class“. Interestingly, it’s an article by Robert Reich, and he’s making pretty much the same point that I am.

Higher education has become merely one more way to discriminate against people under a moral system that says, “work is virtue,” but has too little work to offer full employment (and very shady reasons for that). It’s really no different from racism, or sexism, or religious discrimination. You aren’t white, so you don’t get a job. You don’t have a penis, so you don’t get a job. You aren’t Christian, so you don’t get a job. You don’t have a college diploma, so you don’t get a job.

But you have to have a job to have permission to eat, and to look anyone in the eye.

The big difference is, we don’t have a loan-sharking industry lining up black people and offering them an opportunity to indenture themselves in return for a “white certificate” that will (supposedly) let them past the discriminatory gate. Or offering women a “penis certificate.”

Now, there’s an opportunity….

This entry was posted in General.

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