Friday, May 04, 2007

Higher Education Conformity

From AlterNet:

But in the last three decades the percentage of jobs requiring at least some college has doubled, which means that employers are going along with the college racket. A resume without a college degree is never going to get past the computer programs that screen applications. Why? Certainly it's not because most corporate employers possess a deep affinity for the life of the mind. In fact in his book Executive Blues G. J. Meyers warned of the "academic stench" that can sink a career: That master's degree in English? Better not mention it.

My theory is that employers prefer college grads because they see a college degree chiefly as mark of one's ability to obey and conform. Whatever else you learn in college, you learn to sit still for long periods while appearing to be awake. And whatever else you do in a white collar job, most of the time you'll be sitting and feigning attention. Sitting still for hours on end -- whether in library carrels or office cubicles -- does not come naturally to humans. It must be learned -- although no college has yet been honest enough to offer a degree in seat-warming.

Click here for more.

Jeez, there are about a billion different directions I could go in commenting on this. For one, I don't think emplyers actually have a conscious intent in using college degrees as a sign of employee conformity, although such a thing may very well be happening unconsciously. But what strikes me the most about this Barbara Ehrenreich essay is how American society tends to view the concept of college.

Historically, a university education was for an elite few. Growing out of the monastic system of the Catholic Church, the idea was to create enlightened individuals who would be leaders in various fields. That concept, more or less, existed well into the twentieth century. The GI Bill after WWII changed all that. Masses of American veterans entered universities at the government's expense, which seems to have created an expectation over the years that everybody ought to go to college. By the time I was a kid in the 70s, it was understood that the only way to get ahead, the only way to live out the (mostly fictional) American dream was to have a college degree. Universities and colleges were no longer about creating enlightened individuals; they were, and continue to be, degree mills for the facilitation of social and economic advancement.

The funny thing is that college degrees these days, now that the era of the "company man" has ended, guarantee nothing in terms of job placement, but everybody seems to think that higher education is the key to the good life. Indeed, politicians and economists continually assert that more people need to go to college in order to deal with the ravages of globalization spawned job displacement. Meanwhile, white collar jobs disappear overseas.

Don't get me wrong. I, too, believe that everybody ought to get a college education, but not for the purpose of making more money. College makes enlightened human beings who are able to contribute to civil society much better; it also enriches one's personal life greatly. But this understanding that college is a meal ticket has got to end. A university education is its own reward, but the expectation that it's all about the paper you get when you're done has demonstrably diluted the higher learning experience. That is, lots of kids fuck off at school for years, get their degrees, and are still big idiots once they get out: universities, needing tuition dollars, let this happen; corporations, playing the degree weed-out game, are totally content to let it continue.

It really is a big racket when you think about it.