When I was a student at the University of Alabama, I never seriously asked myself why I was in school. It was just understood that I was there to get a degree that would prepare me for a career. My parents both had degrees and it was just an assumption in our family that everyone gets a university degree.
If you had asked me why I was in school, I might have struggled to answer. I might have wanted to say that the purpose was to be an intellectually well-rounded and thoughtful person, but if I’d been honest with myself, I would have admitted I was there to get a piece of paper that marked me as acceptable as socially acceptable for employment. (The photo above from a UA graduation two years ago suggests to me that students still mostly see graduation as a ticket to employment.)
As much as I love learning, I’ve come to have serious doubts about the way the university system works in the United States today. (For readers in other countries, “college” and “university” are used interchangeably for practical purposes here in most usages.) I’ve come to see college as a long series of expensive hoops to jump through — which mostly just show that someone has the tenacity and willingness to stick to a plan and follow orders.
On Monday, a friend posted a link on Facebook to an article questioning the value of getting master’s degrees in library science and suggesting that some sort of apprentice program would be more useful. My friend is a librarian and a very bright woman. She’s decided to get a master’s in “library science” — which in itself as an odd name — but it’s not because it will help her do her job better. It’s because she’ll be paid more.
“I’ve struggled with the idea of going back for my [master’s] for many years,” she wrote when we discussed the article. “I’ve finally decided to go ahead and do it, because I’m at the point where I’m doing the work of a degreed librarian, without the pay (which isn’t that much, but is more than I’m making now). All things considered, it seems like the best course of action, but ultimately, I’m going through all of this just for a piece of paper. [Emphasis mine.] If I applied for certain types of library jobs right now, with my experience and references, and that piece of paper, I’d at least be seriously considered. As of right now, though, because I don’t have it, I won’t even get looked at.”
I have friends in other fields who feel the same way. I’ve had teacher friends get master’s degrees in education (or even doctorates) simply because the system is set up so they get paid more for those pieces of paper. It’s not that they’re better at their jobs. They say the coursework is useless and doesn’t apply to the real world. But they have an incentive to waste their time and money — and tax revenues for the classes subsidized at state schools — in order to make a better income. How does anyone benefit from that?
Over the weekend, I read a story about vocational schools, something that was looked down upon when I was in school. For my friends and I — who were bound for college and smugly considered ourselves above those who went to trade school — it was a step down. We were reflecting a common attitude that going to a four-year college is obviously the superior choice. After all these years, I wonder who the suckers were.
Millions of people graduate with fairly useless undergraduate degrees and struggle to find work, while those who go to vocational schools tend to be prepared for very good blue collar jobs, many of which pay more than many generic four-year degrees will ever bring.
When I posted the article on Facebook, a friend commented on his experience learning a trade instead of getting a college degree.
“I work for a Caterpillar dealer in their truck shop,” he said. “I make more money and have better benefits than many of my college-educated friends. I have no college debt. And most importantly, I actually like my job.”
The educational establishment is happy to push the idea that more and more students should go to college, resulting in dumbing down standards for students who shouldn’t be there in the first place (and who aren’t interested in being there). The establishment likes the “college for all” idea because it brings in more students, making their jobs more important and more secure. (And they naturally believe that what they do must be important.) In addition, those who make student loans and sell textbooks are also happy to lobby for “greater access” to college, because it pads their bottom lines.
I believe that a liberal arts education can have great value for a lot of people. I love learning for its own sake. But not everyone is interested in a traditional university education and many of those people don’t need that kind of education for the things they want to do with their lives. Those who aren’t interested in this kind of education are generally going to memorize what they need to know long enough to pass required classes — and not remember the material the next day. Who benefits from this system?
We need to look carefully at our dysfunctional education system. Those who want a traditional liberal arts education should have it available. Those who want a more technical education — such as engineering, medicine and such — should have that available to them, too. Those should probably be entirely different institutions, because the mindset is entirely different. And third, we need to elevate the status and training of those who want to work in blue collar trades so more people will feel that it’s acceptable to make that choice.
Society needs all three of those types of people. It seems to me that those are three entirely different types of educations with entirely different purposes.
I studied journalism at Alabama (along with political science, history and whatever sounded interesting at the moment of registration). I took journalism classes that I was required to take, but the dirty little secret is that I didn’t learn a thing in those classes. I learned all that I learned of journalism by doing the work at a real newspaper where I was working part-time.
Journalism isn’t a profession. It’s a trade. I think we’d be better going back to the days when young reporters learned by being hired to do grunt work and then gradually learning the skills they need. It worked well for me, and that’s why I was managing editor of a small daily newspaper when I was still 21.
I know better than to think these changes are going to happen. I’m just frustrated that we’re saddled with a system that’s dysfunctional — leaving students unprepared for real jobs and saddled with debt that’s going to follow them for years.