It’s easy to see in retrospect that college wasn’t for me. For a kid whose smarts lay entirely in the area of verbal communication, college is an incredibly expensive way to spend several years reading what other people think you should. As an 18-year-old freshman, I discovered that sitting quietly in a windowless room while some guy told me about depictions of pornography in ancient Rome was kind of my own personal hell. Though, to be fair, in that class I did learn about this poet named Catullus who wrote such profoundly eternal words as, “I will fuck you in the ass.” I paid some $5,000 for those course credits, and what I got for my money was the knowledge that the cradle of republican civilization produced some hilarious perverts. Not a diploma, though: I flunked out of school.
So why was I there in the first place?
Once upon a time before 1958, the federal government did not subsidize or guarantee loans to civilians to go to college. Logically, in the absence of student loans, there was no student loan debt in those days, either. After all, when Dwight Eisenhower was president, 35 percent of American workers were unionized, 60 percent worked in the service sector and fewer than 400,000 people were in college working toward bachelor‘s degrees. Heck, 200,000 more people worked at AT&T (then the Bell System) in 1960 than were enrolled in a four-year college in the entire United States. College, it seems, didn’t make a whole lot of sense for the vast majority of Americans back then.
Then the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. That’s how humanity abruptly entered the space age: A bunch of communists (with universal healthcare) beat the United States into orbit. And if those damned Russkies could throw a hunk of metal high enough into the air to get it circling the planet, our WASPy leaders realized, then surely they could throw something else up into the air and have it fall back down somewhere in America.
Facing potential annihilation or invasion from outer space communists was pretty much exactly as terrifying as it sounds. So, to start winning the space race and thus the Cold War, we needed what the CIA guy from Raiders in the Lost Ark called “top men” to start doing math. But we simply didn’t have enough chemists, engineers, mathematicians and scientists ready to respond in a dramatic way to Sputnik’s launch. This realization, of course, sent America into problem-solving mode, which is when we get the chance to act really fucking stupid. Indeed, as with all fear-based policies, irrational oversimplification won out over common sense: America decided that everyone was going to be a rocket scientist.
Which is to say more accurately: Everyone could now take out a federal loan to go to college for a few years before not becoming a rocket scientist.
So, in 1958, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, ushering in the modern era of “college for everybody” thanks to easily obtained loans. The good news: A number of Americans who couldn’t have afforded college, and actually did belong there, got the leg up they needed. The bad news: As with everything in the United States, we promptly started taking it to excess. Soon, college attendance as a success in and of itself became as unquestioned a component of the American identity as social security and apple pie. After all, the sentiment that some poor, budding Einstein in Mississippi can now solve the riddle of the Sphinx with loans guaranteed by the American taxpayer gives those taxpayers the type of potent, illusory high that only crack-grade patriotism can: Poor people deserve to go to college just like rich people! Now nobody will fall through the cracks in modern America anymore, even though they always have and always will in human society because life is inherently unfair! What do you mean my wheezy idiot son should not be a Supreme Court justice? Pass the pipe and FAFSA application!
Let’s acknowledge that in order to be a rocket scientist, you must be smart in a very particular way. Most smart lawyers, psychologists, nannies and writers would make horrible rocket scientists. This doesn’t mean they are stupid; most rocket scientists would be god-awful at running a daycare.
Everyone does not need to be a rocket scientist. Everyone should not need to spend four years in college, either.
Throughout my school career, my grades were always terrible. I hated obeying arbitrary grownups. I hated doing homework. (I did, however, love to sit in the library at my leisure and learn things by reading, which, interestingly, is free.) But going to college is what we’re taught we’re supposed to do if we’re not failures in the making destined to appear on Maury Povich. So the minute I got into a good university, off I went, confident that if I buckled down, got a degree and found a job, the debt I was signing off on would be a minor nuisance, erased by the time I was forty.
This was then, and is today, bullshit.
In fact, the college-for-everyone model as it exists today is doing more harm than good, as one colleged-out professor, Michael Simkovic, writes in the Sept. 2011 Washington and Lee Law Review: “There is a large mismatch between the skills workers have and employers’ needs, and this mismatch contributes to structural unemployment, reduced output and higher student loan defaults.” This fact, of course, is where the maddening “barista with a graduate degree” trope comes from: The student loan system as it exists promotes a cultural ideal that is inherently unresponsive to the actual needs of Americans.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, starting in 2012, unemployment was stratified equally across educational class for those under 30. That means if you’re a younger American today, a graduate degree is no better protection against financial insecurity than a high school diploma. So we’d be better off acknowledging that human beings are all kinds of smart. The vast majority of us should be spending our early adulthood learning to be plumbers, machine operators, artists, customer service representatives, account managers, musicians, janitors, bus drivers, police officers, salesmen, copywriters and pain-in-the-ass newspaper columnists—none of which require an expensive liberal arts degree, and yet none of which would keep a person from the liberal arts education you can get by spending a few hours a week reading books from the library.
That’s the problem with how the counter-Sputnik initiative morphed into “every American deserves a college education.” Nope. We don’t. Everyone does, however, deserve an education—whether that means college, or an apprenticeship, or the military, or technical school or any one of a number of other unique paths toward personal achievement. But that truth, and those opportunities, have very little to do with the multibillion-dollar four-year college industry as it’s come to exist.
If we were actually trying to address today’s problems via education, we would do far, far better to invest up front in strong primary education—particularly in the poor communities where it’s most needed. We do not do this, because we are, on the whole, a stupid people, who learned nothing in college.
Or maybe that’s just me.
Josh Kruger is writer and editor from Philadelphia. His PW column, “The Uncomfortable Whole,” presents stories and ideas that challenge our cultural understanding of what “normal” means in American life anymore.
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