The case for low standards

TV pitchman Mike Rowe — who moves piles of money, not dirt — really hates college. He sees a future for us all in the trades. He plays the political line with some finesse, of course, but Rowe has said just enough snide, corporate-pocket things over the years to suggest that, behind the scenes, he and his bros think that most public school degrees are a BS from PCU, double major in sanctimony and whining.

As long as the average four-year degree means an eternal yoke of debt, I am afraid I almost have to agree with him — not about the content of the education, goodness no, but about its value proposition.

For some, college is vocational, and the undergraduate portion is just the base of a tall and complicated pyramid they must scale. But for many, many others, the undergraduate experience is really all about what comes here and now, not next: an enriched time, an interval of retreat and immersion in an unreality of sorts, a window of absolved responsibility that coincides with the late stages of neurological development and the first great flowering of abstract and synthetic thinking. It should be an affordable option for anyone who wants to get lost.


A liberal-arts education should be elusive and oblique, self-undermining, all misdirection and delayed action brain bombs that may not detonate for another thirty years. It is almost impossible to put a value on it. The years themselves are the product, not some projective future contribution to society. So price the damn thing accordingly — free or marginally more. No one should leave with more than 20k in debt at the very most.

A noncommittal dilettante’s right to dabble, right to probe, right to flounder and, yes, right to party in politically incendiary ways, are the beauty and essence of the liberal-arts education. When it comes with 80 grand of debt that locks you into the economic systems you thought you were learning to subvert, to question, to reform – well, you see the friction. This, more than anything, is what makes dissent such a dog-and-pony show.

In 1984 I was able to emerge, all muddled and unclear, from a state-school education with only a modicum of debt. Neither the debt nor the degree steered my life. I was as lost as anyone, maybe even more so, by obfuscatory agency of all the philosophy and critical theory that was now working its mischief in my decision-making. In 1984, SUNY standards were more or less in the shitter. I sometimes wish they were in the shitter still. The academic rehab that saved standards and boosted ratings spelled the doom of exactly what I went to college for — untimed time, world in a bubble. In a timeless paradox, lax standards sometimes encourage a kind of imagination, autonomy, and blue-sky discovery that high standards and defined goals can squeeze right out of you.

Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.

There is one comment

  1. Bill Whittaker

    To quote an earlier Burdick,”The students were high,the standards were low”
    Now a days it might read “The standards were high,the students had no where to go”,
    except mabe the poor house. High debt,no jobs,income stagnation etc.,looks bleak.

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