To thine own self

The Saugerties prom, like all proms, was a magical and bittersweet night; a somewhat antiquated but no less numinous rite of passage into an adulthood. Next week, finals. Then graduation and a summer of grad parties, work and heady ideas about the future. For many, that will mean college – a two-year, a four-year, or a two-year then a four-year (to save money).

Today, more Americans are going to college than ever before. Policymakers believe even more should go. But is this necessarily so? While it’s true that our education system doesn’t meet the economy’s needs in many sectors — we have to bring in scores of foreign doctors and engineers – and unemployment could be eradicated if everyone’s skills matched employer demand, is college-for-all the right approach? Or, to look at it from the bottom up, is college necessarily the right move for every member of the class of 2011?

It’s not. The broad decree that every student should earn a Regent’s Diploma and attend a liberal arts institution of higher learning neither addresses the needs of the economy nor, more importantly, the needs of the individual student. The problem isn’t without real consequences. Private debt is a much more onerous problem than unemployment. If you’re unemployed, with no dependents and no debt, you can probably hustle up some work. Roam the neighborhood with some hedge-clippers or a snow shovel. Send out those resumes and cover letters by night. If you’ve got to make a student loan payment, it’s a lot harder. The average college student graduates with a debt of about $24,000. To pay that off in 15 years, you’re looking at a $200 monthly payment. The need to make those payments can be like a yoke around one’s neck, and it forces many to move back in with mom and dad or scramble for any decent job they can find rather than go out into the world and try to make the best use of their education. Americans still move more than their European counterparts. It’s one of the reasons our unemployment is usually lower. But it’s harder to do that with the debt cloud.

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It’s tricky business to calculate the value of a college education, which at its best, at least in the liberal arts, is a priceless journey of self-discovery through well planned encounters with the great ideas and discoveries of the past. But college is almost always spoken about as an economic imperative, so let’s talk about it that way.

In the essay “Bad Education,” which appeared in the April, 2011 issue of n+1 magazine, Malcolm Harris writes:

“Since 1978, the price of tuition at US colleges has increased over 900 percent, 650 points above inflation. To put that number in perspective, housing prices, the bubble that nearly burst the US economy,  then the global one, increased only fifty points above the Consumer Price Index during those years. But while college applicants’ faith in the value of higher education has only increased, employers’ has declined. According to Richard Rothstein at The Economic Policy Institute, wages for college-educated workers outside of the inflated finance industry have stagnated or diminished. Unemployment has hit recent graduates especially hard, nearly doubling in the post-2007 recession. The result is that the most indebted generation in history is without the dependable jobs it needs to escape debt.”

The college-for-all drum beat does the most harm for those who attend for-profit colleges. These institutions can and do provide a gateway to higher education for people whose grades aren’t high enough for non-profits. The classic success story is someone who decides to get serious about school sometime after the age of 22. Unfortunately, a degree from one of these schools isn’t a ticket to guaranteed employment, and the cost is high. “While the debt numbers for four-year programs look risky, for-profit two-year schools have apocalyptic figures: 96 percent of their students take on debt and within fifteen years 40 percent are in default,” writes Harris, who goes on to list the now well- known litany of sins committed by some for-profit colleges, which range from deceptive recruiting practices to outright fraud. Taxpayers should care, too, since federal grants and loans account for the lion’s share of the revenues collected by these institutions.

As Harris writes about the securitization of these loans, which, because they are non-dischargeable even in bankruptcy, represent the surest bet out there, I can’t help but think of the last bubble we had: housing. In true American fashion, both are driven by a naive ideal: that everyone can and should be a homeowner, just as all should attend college. In both cases, these aspirations were encouraged by society and facilitated by a financial sector all too happy to create more opportunities to make money. (Wily opportunists thriving under lax regulation is another very American phenomenon.) It’s leveraging the American Dream to the hilt. Reality caught up with the housing bubble. It hasn’t hit consumer debt yet.

These trends in education thought have had two major casualties: the humanities and public esteem for the trades. With the humanities, faced with the imperative to show how their disciplines can pay off, professors nurse a theory that “creative” people are essential to great success in today’s companies. Their wacky ideas can help inspire the real workers, presumably those who chose more pragmatic degrees with the job title built in. Worse, concerned over empty classrooms in the Milton seminars, these departments have taken to pandering with every course catalog now featuring ridiculous classes in pop culture and science fiction.

The humanities do not train employees, nor should they aspire to. As Mark Slouka writes in the excellent essay “Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School”: “To put it simply, science addresses the outer world; the humanities, the inner one. Science explains how the material world is now for all men; the humanities, in their indirect, slippery way, offer the raw materials from which the individual constructs a self—a self distinct from others. The sciences, to push the point a bit, produce people who study things, and who can therefore, presumably, make or fix or improve these things. The humanities don’t.”

Constructing a self. There we go. Student loan debt would not be the problem it is if students had a better sense of themselves before signing on the dotted line. Maybe that’s too much to ask of an 18-year-old, but not a 22-year-old looking to go to grad school to wait out the recession, or go to law school, the traditional refuge of the craven liberal arts grad looking to make six figures (an increasingly rare outcome for a J.D.).

Which brings me, finally, to the trades. You won’t hear too much about the trades in today’s schools. But the word on the street is this: they’re one of the best ways to make a living left, especially for young men, who no longer have the option of getting a good job at the local factory and just don’t do as well in the classroom, taken as a whole, as women. While many of the jobs men used to do are now done by machines or overseas workers, you can’t outsource a tradesman, most of whom are older guys at this point.

As the bestseller The Millionaire Next Door recently noted, the typical millionaire is not the guy in a tailored suit getting out of the backseat of the Town Car – he’s the guy driving a pickup, with his own business in the trades. Then there’s the joke about the plumber who fixes a lawyer’s leaky sink. When the lawyers sees his hourly rate, he says: “Wow, I’m a lawyer and I don’t make this much!”

“I know,” replies the plumber. “I used to be one.”

Or something. But I make the economic argument only because it flies in the face of a vague but prevailing idea that the trades are somehow a thing of the past. We still have a BOCES, but what happened to shop class? There seems to be no recognition of the need for manual competence or the positive effect working in the empirical and precise world building and repairing goods can have on the developing brain. I’m all for self-esteem – if you don’t believe in yourself no one will – but our system fosters it without complementing it with the experience of failure. You can put forward any theory you like about Ulysses, as long as you can back it up. But tuning the carbs on a 1980 CB750 is not relativistic: it either runs or it doesn’t. Now anyone can learn to do this, but no one can fudge it. There’s a right way and a wrong way.

It’s just a different kind of intelligence. Where most “knowledge workers” work within the well-defined parameters outlined through scientific management, the tradesman is constantly dealing with new variables, solving new and unexpected problems. The nature of the work is black and white, right and wrong, but how you get there is often anything but straight-forward. I think Aristotle was speaking to the innovative spirit of those who work with their hands when he said: “Lack of experience diminishes our power of taking a comprehensive view of the admitted facts. Hence those who dwell in intimate association with nature and its phenomena are more able to lay down principles such as to admit of a wide and coherent development; while those whom devotion to abstract discussions has rendered unobservant of facts are too ready to dogmatize on the basis of a few observations.”

Today’s prospective college students should look within. Is economic security your main concern? Are you intellectually curious? Is it important to create something or solve a problem yourself, or would you be comfortable doing a specific task within a larger unit? Even if you don’t know what you want to be when you grow up, you probably know what sort of thinking you like to do. Follow that.

The Instigator appears semi-regularly in the Saugerties Times. To get the best local coverage of all things Saugerties, subscribe today to the print edition.

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