My Word's

an occasional column by
Marylaine Block
May 19, 2002


College has been good to me. I'm one of the fortunate few who had great teachers throughout, both in undergraduate and graduate programs. I then spent 22 years working as a university librarian, helping students with their studies and helping faculty with their research. I love the academic environment, a place where people care about books, talk about ideas, and create new knowledge. There's a kind of intellectual excitement in the air -- people change in entirely unpredictable ways when you bombard them with knowledge and show them new ways of thinking and knowing.

But I'm puzzled by the widespread notion that every kid should go to college. When Bill Clinton was first elected president, he talked about making college or skilled trades training readily available for every student, but nowadays he talks about college for everyone -- not that every student with the ability and desire should have the opportunity for college, but that every student should go to college. In Oklahoma, which has a work training program that the president of General Motors has told other governors to imitate, Governor Frank Keating is trying to force every high school student to take a rigorous college prep program -- a sure way to increase the drop-out rate and label kids unsuited to such programs as failures regardless of their other abilities.

Does it not occur to anybody that our society needs mechanics and carpenters and electricians and tool-and-die makers as much as, if not more than, more lawyers and sociologists, or that some students already know they want to spend their lives baking pastries or performing in a rock band or tinkering with engines? Don't they realize that college is no place for people who can't stand the thought of being cooped up inside a building all day, every day? Doesn't it matter to them that many students regard college as an unreasonable four-year postponement of their real lives as independent, self-supporting adults? That many have been suffering for years in school taking required courses that bore them silly, and they can't bear the thought of four more years of the same?

I know that's the case, because I saw those students at my university, and my friends at other universities have been seeing them too -- students who don't want the liberal arts education but just want the degree, the proof that the proper hoop was jumped through for a career in accounting or criminal justice or broadcasting. These students don't regard liberal arts requirements as a wonderful opportunity to find new passions for dance or theater or philosophy, or to discover in themselves unknown talents, or to learn new ways of thinking. They think the requirements are unreasonable obstacles, or worse, ripoffs, schemes by college officials to maximize profit by charging them for what they don't want to learn as well as for what they do. That's not even an entirely unreasonable view, given how many of these students will spend years paying off their college loans.

So why is so much emphasis being placed on college now? Why are so many kids being encouraged to attend when they are neither suited to nor interested in a traditional college education? I think maybe what's happened is that politicians have made policy from statistics they don't understand very well. It is true that as a class, people with college degrees make more money than people who don't. But that generalization has enough holes to drive a truck through. Librarians need a master's degree to get a job, and make less than plumbers and electricians and appliance repairmen. Same thing for teachers, who need a bachelor's degree to get a teaching job with an average starting salary of $30,000. But at least teachers and librarians can find a job; there aren't ever likely to be as many jobs for history professors as there are scholars with Ph.D.s in history.

Parents are part of the problem, too. We all want to be proud of our kids. A running theme throughout our history is the ditch-digger or factory worker or maid who pride themselves that at least their kids won't have to work with their hands. For professionals, it can be downright embarrassing to have kids who have lowered their social status by choosing to be mechanics or gardeners or caterers. This kind of contempt for physical labor is unfortunate. As John Gardner said, "The society that scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water."

But it's not just snobbery. We also want our kids to make good money and have a secure future, especially when we've watched jobs drying up and companies leaving town. It's easy for us to look at those salary statistics and think the college degree is some kind of guarantee. It's easy for us to tell kids to forget about art or poetry, because with a degree in computer science they can always get a job.

All of that makes college both more and less than it is and should be. It has become a convenience for business, certifying that students know a set number of professional skills, and a de facto ticket of admission to the middle class for students. But because of the economic significance of the degree, all non-career-related knowledge is devalued and suspect: How come I gotta learn this stuff? What good is Socrates gonna do me during tax season? I barely have time to learn all the math and engineering principles and you make me take a theology course? Why should I learn to do research when I'll have an assistant to do that for me?

Worse, students may be learning not just to devalue the impractical, uneconomic liberal arts, but to devalue those who never went to college and don't make very much money. What does it say to teachers and cooks and gardeners and nurses when we build communities they can't possibly afford to live in, even though we need them to work there? What does it say to skilled technicians when they can afford to live in a nice neighborhood, but they're not allowed to park their commercial vans in their own driveways because that might lower property values?

There are thousands of jobs in the government's Dictionary of Occupational Titles, but our kids are choosing from the maybe 30 or 40 they know about from seeing them on television, or among their family and neighbors. Many of those jobs they've never heard of don't require college, and might well make students happier than the jobs they expensively earn with their MBAs and JDs. As they slog away at their jobs, they may be daydreaming about being a park ranger, or renovating old buildings or crafting musical instruments or leading tours in Europe or devising exciting new computer games.

Sending all kids to college when they're 18 imay not be a reasonable social goal. But making it possible for them to enroll when they're older and understand themselves better is something else again. You see, that's one of the nice things about college -- you can always drop back in. It's a place that allows you to start again once you've figured out why you want to be there. And you know something? You're a whole lot more likely to see that intellectual ferment in the college environment when you're participating in it, because you've come there to learn something you've chosen out of passion.

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