This is a slippery topic with a wide variety of entrance and exit points. I will take a pair, and perhaps return later to explore others.
We all read about the alarming problem of student loan debt, racked up by expenses for achieving a “college education.” The logic is simple: without a college degree, your future prospects are garbage. Get a degree, and you can presumably write your own success story.
My simple retort: “Bullshit!”
There is a huge difference between a “credential” and an “education.” The degree is the credential, the education is much more difficult to wrap your arms around.
Before World War II, college was a more or less a privileged environment. Only high-achievers and dedicated grinds got a degree, along with the sons and daughters of wealthy families who saw it as a “right of passage,” which it still is in many ways.
Post WWII, with the GI Bill, a lot of vets got a pretty good college education. And this started the ball rolling toward our present predicament.
The issue is this: until the 1970s or so, a high school diploma represented a badge of significant achievement. Most kids were achieving at what we now call “grade level,” and when you got your H.S. diploma, it meant you knew the basics of reading, comprehension, composition, math, some science, some civics (“social studies”), some geography, some very basic history, and a year or two (mostly useless) of a foreign language, mostly Spanish, maybe French.
For guys, you also got manual arts (wood shop, metal shop — I still have a pretty decent lamp I turned on a lathe in wood shop), and for the gals, home economics (you know the drill!).
In the 70s, things began to shift and slip. Teachers, recognizing that failing students would doom them to a life of poverty, began to pass them along with “grade inflation.” Unless you were a complete idiot, you would get “passed along.” Each teacher assumed the next one would blow the whistle, but no one did. So kids were graduating from (yes, “FROM”) high school with skills that were probably equivalent to a realistic 7th or 8th grade education.
God only knows what it is now!
As a result, colleges stared remedial education for the first year or two to bring their students “up to speed.” And of course, the real value of the BA and BS began to fade.
I will make a [not so] bold guess that today’s college graduate is about equal to the H.S. graduate of 50 years ago.
A Real Education
So what is a college education supposed to be? It’s as I described above pre-1970, giving graduates the ability to follow current events with some judgment and discernment. Indeed, one of the reasons we have the educational system we do is because we live in a democracy where the electorate is supposed to understand the issues!
In college you learn that “knowledge” is not a matter of simple facts. College teaches you to ask questions, to analyze, to weigh pros and cons, to do research in multiple media, to evaluate sources of information, to essentially come to terms with the human condition or, in the sciences, with what is involved in doing real scientific research (where everything is up for grabs, but must be pursued via the scientific method plus some creativity to achieve real breakthroughs). Or it is to achieve a better grasp of and deeper familiarity with the fine arts and performing arts. College is for people who are almost adults, who are ready to live with ambiguity. The message is: “You are almost grown up. The secret you need to know is, there are no absolutes. Everything is open to question and analysis. Trust your faith, but understand that others may have a different faith, which you must apply yourself to understanding, while you remain true to your own. And never forget that you are just beginning a path of life-long learning, which this education has given you the tools to pursue on your own.”
This is the lesson of college and of life, and IF TRULY MASTERED, is often a key ingredient in wonderful marriages, scientific advancement, responsible public officials, outstanding teachers, brilliant artists and writers, model citizens, and so on and so on.
The Naked Truth
But the naked truth is that only a small percentage of people are willing to take this roller coaster ride. Most are just looking for a “credential” which will help them get a good job, contribute to a healthy two-income family, and raise well-adjusted kids who can go on to do the same.
They really can’t give two flying effers for the Pythagorian Theorum or existential philosophy or even Quantum Mechanics, which is going to be the A-B-Cs of future education.
So, like the victim of “Sixteen Tons,” they get another day older and deeper in debt, because they “had to” get a “college education” to get a good job, but what they got was a phony parchment with almost zero credibility. AND - they paid tens of thousands of dollars for this piece of worthless garbage!
And the elephant in the room is that employers see through their charade, and won’t hire them just because they have a “college degree.” The degree is worth even less than a high school diploma of 50 years ago, because there really are no standards out there. [In a future post, I may riff on why graduate school is equally fraudulent…]
The Bottom Line
So, what’s it all about, Alfie? I’ll take the phrase “life-long learning.” In my own experience, I would say that every 15 to 20 years you have to reboot and learn a whole new set of skills. And I don’t mean going to school again. There are many ways to get these skills on your own, on the job, in the community, or in some kind of intern program. And I’m not talking about doing this for free. If you play your cards right, you can get paid for learning. (For a good current example see http://t.co/JVtrZGKlIc). But truly earning your first college degree, and taking it seriously, is the key to acquiring further knowledge and mastery on your own later in life.
And here’s the punch line (at last)! There are few things more fun and exciting than keeping up with a variety of subjects you make your own. Whatever your profession, attend seminars, sit in on Webinars, go to conferences, talk to people, NETWORK! And the most important thing — pick a couple of areas of expertise that interest or intrigue you that are NOT in your professional area and keep track of these, as well. They can be hobbies, or pet peeves, or personal interests like movies or electronics or sewing or cooking or travel or whatever. But take them seriously, subscribe to enewsletters or magazines, read books in those subject areas — KEEP UP!
As I said, life-long learning. Don’t belly ache about being too tired or strung out or “busy.” You have one life to live, my friend. Live it to the fullest, and pass along your wisdom. Only try to do it a little more gently than I do, because people accuse me of being a little too “pedantic.” But I’ll take pedantry over apathy, prejudice, hubris, and arrogance any day of the week!