Finals. That impending assault of actual work that caps a semester of nearly consequence-free apathy and procrastination. The brief but all to long period of the kind of mental intensity and academic rigor that many non-collegians mistake for the bulk what passes for higher education.
It is always around this time that I think on the colossal failure that is the American education system.
College is a joke. Not a complete joke, granted, but only because the absurd costs make the enterprise more tragic than comical. And our credentialist society that treats slices of sheepskin as the only accepted signifier of aptitude is the primary culprit for why higher education continues to spiral out of control.
It seems obvious but it’s worth mentioning that college is ostensibly meant to train students for a skilled work force. It is supposed to differ from primary education in that it is more challenging and specified.
However, any current or former college student could tell you just how worthless the information actually taught to them is. For a class this semester, I interviewed one of my law professors. When I asked her how she liked her undergrad experience, she said that she wished she would have majored in something like English rather than political science, because nothing she learned about her field has stuck with her. At least if it was English, she would have read some good books.
That comment made me think about my own political science degree. Despite being the overwhelming majority of my college credits, there were only two poli sci classes that made a lasting impact on me: one because it made me understand the procedures and values of political polling and the other because it changed my view on religion’s function in society.
Besides that, no class that I took for my major made any appreciable impact on my thinking. In fact, the intellectual transformation that did occur in me and I’m sure most college-age kids was almost completely attributable to things I learned outside of class. So even in its goal of fostering an intellectually stimulating environment that will challenge and create new ideas, college fails — unless you attribute the vast amounts of free time to pursue real interests to college, but I’m not sure if that is system’s point.
And that doesn’t even touch on the complete lack of real world skills most college degrees instill. Political science, like philosophy or gender studies or history, is one of those ponzi scheme majors that really only prepares you for teaching the subject to future students.
If college doesn’t teach you all that much, and doesn’t train you for an actual job, then why do so many students line up semester after semester to take out loans they still will be paying back long after any knowledge they acquired in French 204 has long since faded?
The blame for this is the culture of credentialism. We have become so focused on college graduation as an end in and of itself that we have lost the sense of what it was supposed to mean in the first place. This credentialism — where the only valid demonstration of intellectual ability, talent, or drive is a degree — has created an educational arms race, demanding more and more education at increasing prices just to tell an employer what they could have found out themselves.
It wasn’t always like this. In the olden days, a particularly precocious teen could shadow a doctor or a lawyer, start up an apprenticeship, and in a handful of years be trained firsthand with all the knowledge he would need to be a successful practitioner of his own, all by the age most of us are halfway through college.
Even when specialized education began to be primarily taught in universities, the fact that not everyone went to college meant a bachelor’s degree actually did set one applicant apart from another.
But today, with colleges popping up like McDonalds, eager to get some of that federal loan money that ensures almost anyone can pay for any kind of degree over a decade or so, it’s hard to know what that same degree gets you. Now, you have to go to graduate school, and pay even more outrageous prices, for a similarly nebulous benefit. Graduate schools aren’t beholden to the industries they serve with potential employees to only train a responsible number of students. As long as that loan money keeps coming in, new graduate programs will continue to emerge, benefiting from the insufficiency of their very own undergrad degrees.
All of this would be understandable if we were training an increasingly skilled workforce.
But all this education really gets us is bartenders that can talk to their patrons about Hume or English major car salesmen that recognize a syntax error in the operating manual. College grads take jobs that previously required no college education to pay off what they still owe from their unrelated majors.
I believe most of this is unnecessary.
There are more efficient ways to project if someone has what it takes to thrive in any particular occupation. I first decided I wanted to be a lawyer in elementary school, after one of those personality tests said that’s what I’d be good at. Fifteen years later, I don’t think any of my scholastic achievements have helped or hurt that designation too much either way — save my willingness to go into vast amounts of debt.
And if that’s all I have to show from college and law school, I’d like my money back, please.
William Haisley is a third year law student and is the Collegian’s Wednesday columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org