Higher Education is Failing Us

Higher-Education Enrollment is on the Decline from the National Review

First things first: I hate the National Review.

So why do I keep reading it? Because I hate myself.

Well actually, I once thought that it was a decent publication. I might not have agreed with its politics, but at least there was some acceptable analysis. Which is more than I can say about literally EVERY political opinion piece that I have ever read, ever. Now it’s just turned into a regular conservative mouthpiece, so none of it makes any sense.

What’s changed? I don’t know. Perhaps I’ve changed.

And while I typically disagree with every right-wing position under the sun, I do agree with them on one thing: Colleges are increasingly becoming useless, self-important institutions.

The truth of the matter is that everyone should be jumping aboard this ship. Both the left and the right should be in total agreement about the need to re-think how we approach higher education. Of course, both do in fact agree that SOMETHING has to be done. But because the Left has such a stronghold in university halls, they believe that the problem is a lack of diversity (which is true) and the type of cultures that fester themselves on campus (also true). Ultimately, it’s about sending more people to college. And that’s not going far enough.

(Meanwhile, the Right bemoans “safe spaces”, “political correctness”, etc)

In our era of the internet, where knowledge is easily accessible, universities should be finding themselves in awkward positions. This idea that knowledge should only be accessible to the “best and the brightest”, is in my view, becoming an out-of-date practice. Basically universities are becoming a symbol of an old-world order. A time when only the elite were allowed to be educated. While colleges and universities have become greatly accessible to people of all backgrounds, it still maintains the image of being a club for the stuffy, elbow-padded, turtleneck wearing, armchair intellectual.

While progress is touted within its halls, they are still organizations that are slow to progress themselves. If they are truly interested in becoming “open institutions”, then they should become focused on becoming, you know…OPEN! Knowledge cannot be contained within academic halls. Although there’s a strange stigma attached to online education, that is really the only (and best) way forward.

I will maintain that the internet is a far better teacher of knowledge than the average professor in our day and age.

Additionally, I would challenge the WAY how higher (and even primary) education is being conducted and evaluated is becoming insufficient. But that’s a story for another day.

When we consider rising costs of tuition, problems of on-campus culture, and a sense of delayed adulthood with younger generations, perhaps going to college ISN’T the smart choice in modern society.

It’s been a busy day, so I didn’t really have the time to write a full post. But I have addressed the problems with higher education in the past, notably on the podcast My Life With Kant. Below is the transcript from a specific episode where I talk about specific problems, and ways how to fix it. Please forgive any spelling or grammatical errors.

My Life With Kant

Many people found college to be some of the best years of their lives. And fuck those people. But really, I just couldn’t get into it. What was most bothersome to me, was this strange, cult-like bubble that everyone evolved their lives around. Everyone’s lives centered on this place, and everyone was wearing clothes that promoted the school. It was supposed to be a place where you’re supposed to meet many new people, yet it felt like everyone felt the same. And if you went to a NCAA Power 5 school, it was that much more obnoxious. Because you always come across the boat-shoe, short-shorts wearing dude, whose dad was probably a fan of the sports team, and is therefore bankrolling their son or daughter to go to school there. If it wasn’t them, then it was either nerds or hippies, and those people just needed to get laid, so they were never fun to be around. But it was like there was a greater devotion to the school, rather than towards any sort of education or personal development. Additionally, I’m a college sports fan, but sometimes there’s this illusion that universities are sports teams with academic institutions attached to them….rather than the other way around.

So I always felt that universities were just further instruments of institutionalization, despite the fact that I spent 2/3rds of my life being institutionalized. And what’s amazing, universities are loaded with adults, willfully paying to be there, and they willfully live under constant stress in believing that the school is providing good experience for the real world. With rising costs of tuition, and people tripping over themselves to pay it, universities hold all of the power and seemingly exist for its own benefit, rather than for the benefit of its student body and society as a whole.

Now I firmly believe in the saying “What’s the point in living if you can’t overdo it?” And I don’t even care if that’s a real saying or not, because that’s what I practice. Now as you become an adult, you have to make some sacrifices. But there’s this grace period, between 18 to 22, where you’re old enough to do MOST things, but your shitty behavior can still be excused for immaturity. People will still judge the shit out of you, but I think they would be more understanding of your plight. Now, I’m not saying that you cease being stupid after 22, because, hell, I’m an example of that. But being in college is a get-out-of-jail-free card, and you have to take an advantage of that. Or, at least I did.

“You only live once” is such a cliché, that people overlook…that it’s true! And while youth isn’t the end all, be all, that some make it out to be, it’s still something that shouldn’t be wasted. And sooo many in college are wasting pivotal years sitting in classrooms and stressing out….over pretty much, nothing. Which is completely the opposite of what some colleges try to sell you. To me, the whole experience was just a crash course in what stress can do for you. Unless you had a great time and got by on mediocre grades, or thought that the whole thing was easy….in that case, you just pissed away $20,000 (at least) like most of us did. You could have skipped school altogether. But if you had college paid for you….then fuck you, no one likes you. You just spent four years in a plastic bubble, and came out to face a world that you were ill-prepared to succeed in. Plus, you wasted money that could have been better spent elsewhere.

Now of course, I’m not saying that colleges are completely useless. In fact, I would argue the complete opposite. Obviously, if you are going to become a doctor or a scientific researcher of some sort…then you definitely want those guys to go to college. But if we want justify our degrees, then surely the knowledge we gained alone was worth the price of admission. And that would be the justification of your university…knowledge for the sake of knowledge. And I suppose that that’s true to an extent. Actually….no, scratch that….in a liberal society, a knowledgeable person is a valuable person…regardless of that knowledge’s applicability. And institutions that provide that knowledge are highly valuable AND necessary.

….

The problem with these old-school (no pun intended) brick and morter colleges is that they are receiving competition from a growing number of agencies…namely the internet. The information and knowledge that used to be relegated to dusty, old academic halls is now largely available to anyone with a computer. Now, the academics would argue that you would need the proper guidance of application and interpretation of that knowledge, but that raises a new set of problems.

Nearly everyone that went to college, spent the 12 years prior going through an indoctrination program, also known as primary education. That’s not me being snobby towards the primary education system…it’s an extraordinarily necessary program to help people function and succeed in society. Without it….we might not even have a society! But make no mistake…it’s an indoctrination program. And just because it is, doesn’t mean that it’s bad, but that this is the process of getting us institutionalized. The problem is, that once we are successfully institutionalized, there’s no formalized process of helping us think independently. Now ideally, primary education is supposed to help us think independently, but it only help us to do so WITHIN the academic setting. Which, as we all know, the real world and the knowledge gained in the classroom, can sometimes be two different things. But the objective of primary education is to give us the basic knowledge and socialization skills to get by in modern society. And ideally, or at least LEGALLY, further institutionalization is unnecessary, and would be preventative of further self-development and exploration.

And colleges…once again, IDEALLY….are supposed to facilitate this exploration (albeit in an institutionalized setting), and are supposed to prepare students for specialized vocation. That’s their (colleges) practical utility for society, but their REAL importance is for being apparatuses for knowledge…for the sake of knowledge alone. However, the current status of higher education has failed to live up to these ideals…and to current times…even though the need for universities are more important than ever…just for the need of basic employment. Employers everywhere are demanding that their employees have degrees.

The degree ALONE however…is useless. It’s a demand in the job market simply because….it’s a demand! The information gained by earning that degree, more than likely, won’t be used. I have two business degrees, and I work at a business. But do I use the information that I learned? Barely. Not enough to necessitate the cost of going to college. However, employers need to see that college experience in order to justify the cost of paying you. And in most cases, you need it just to get your foot in the door. This, of course, doesn’t speak for every case, but I would venture to say that your employer probably does a better job of training you for your job, than your college degree ever did. Again, unless you’re a doctor, scientist, or a practicing academic of some sort, there probably came a time in your career where you told yourself: “a person without a degree could do this job.”

So, I think that universities are becoming less able to provide skills that are practical in the workforce, even though the workforce still demands that experience! The most useful skills that I DID learn, were things like time management, task prioritization, sticking to beer rather than hard alcohol…things like that. Now, that’s one expensive education to learn things like that. And colleges don’t even mean to teach you those skills, or that’s their tertiary goal at best. Yet those are the lessons that stick with you the most. So universities are finding themselves in this awkward…useless, yet necessary…purgatory, that they don’t seem to know how to get out of. So clearly there is a problem that has to be corrected and reassessed. And those of us outside of academia intuitively know this, yet I’m not entirely certain that those IN IT are.

Despite academics priding themselves on being at the forefront of new ideas, there’s a great deal of stubbornness in how they do things. Whatever sort of changes that THEY believe they need, are (in my view) not enough. Because of their progressive worldview, the only problems that academics see, is that they need to become more inclusive. And they are very much correct on that. However, that is only one problem of many. If they truly do want to become all-inclusive…then they should focus on being…all inclusive! They have to do more than focus on race, class, sex, and so on. If universities want to survive into the next century, they have to become more effective at presenting knowledge….They must go to the people. Being self-serving institutions that only tend to the, quote “best and brightest”, is an old-world order that is quickly becoming obsolete. The information that was once contained in their walls have been scattered across the internet.

The twentieth century’s triumph of the individual means that people no longer need a degree to change the world. Not that they ever did, to be honest. But universities did their damnedest to persuade people that they did. But a lack of a degree, for the most part, does not mean that you can’t become the master of your respective field. Perhaps the greatest technological visionary of the last century, Steve Jobs, infamously only spent one semester in college. Now you can say that he’s the exception to the rule. But once again, is a degree necessary to succeed in your field? Do electricians, plumbers, and mechanics need a degree in engineering? Do actors and artists need an education…to be artists?! Do business leaders need an MBA to be successful? And….do philosophers need to have a degree…to be philosophers?

So, outside of acting like an accrediting agency for certain professions…like doctors, scientists, academics, and so on…universities appear to be hold-overs from a bye-gone era….a time when the separation of class, race, and sex was widely practiced….when education was exclusively for the wealthy and extraordinarily talented. However, they are still an invaluable tool for societies…if not for their research and development activities alone. Not only are they keepers of knowledge, but they seek to further that knowledge. These activities are not done for the purposes of wealth and power, but for the betterment of everyone. And all who seek knowledge should be taught these lessons. This is how education is supposed to work with our public research institutions. Or…maybe that’s just the way I’d like them to work.

Yet these ideals conflict with the demand of the current job market, and stringent admission processes and rising cost of tuition. Additionally, ranking agencies like the US News and World Report have either pointed out the inequality in Higher Education…OR, they are providing an illusion that some institutions are better than others. Either way, schools that are able to rank at the top (which usually have the largest endowments) are able to command better talent from both students and faculty. Leaving the so-called “lesser colleges” with whatever’s left over.

I would venture to say that many universities (maybe not all) are more concerned with maintaining the prestigiousness of their institution, rather than serving the interest of the public good. Professors and admissions officials stay only interested in other smart people, because it makes their job easier….or allows them and the university to “pad their stats”, if you will. But more importantly, it allows them to remain in their rarified air of “smartness”, so that they can continue to avoid the though that “perhaps they’re the problem”. But of course it could never be their fault, because they have all of the degrees….. They are smart, we are not.

All of this flies in the face of their supposed ideals, and against the idea of education itself. Universities don’t feel honored to have you….you should feel honored that they LET you in. Because it is they who possess the knowledge you desire…they control IT….and not the other way around. Alright, that might be a bit hyperbolic. But at any rate…obviously due to logistical reasons alone, colleges can’t accept every Tom, Dick, and Harry that apply. So to me, and correct me if I’m wrong, the best course of action would be to equalize higher education across the board. Let’s stop it with these, labelling certain universities as “commuter schools”, let’s do away with those stupid rankings (or at least pressure universities to stop participating in them), perhaps we need to do away with the idea of “flagship” schools….and I dunno….should we do something about funding? Perhaps most states already do this, but perhaps other states should figure out a way to equally and/or proportionally distribute funds better. Many states do that with their K-12 education, but I don’t know if they do that for Higher Education. Maybe they do, and I’m just speaking over my head. There’s been a lot of focus on endowments recently, but that’s a different issue altogether….Look, I’m just spitballing here. If you want to hear about my public finance theories, then standby for the Public Finance Podcast….which I’ll never get to.

But for me…the best way to democratize Higher Education…is the internet. I know that online learning has a stupid stigma attached to it, but instead of thinking that this will lower expectations from Universities, how about we raise our standards for the Internet! This would solve so many problems! Now I should point out….that many universities already understand this, so I should give credit where credit is due. But moving to internet-based learning solves the major problem, of institutionalization. The internet would put the process of becoming educated, much more in the hands of the student. With that responsibility…that would keep them out of the rarified air that Higher Education tries to construct. So when we consider the stunted growth that we attribute to millennials (of which I’m a part of), a promotion of online learning could be one step, of many, towards undoing that problem.

Additionally, it’s typically thought that For-Profit universities have this market cornered. Which, as we’ve already discussed…education shouldn’t be conducted that way. (Even though, public and private schools seem to have no issue with overcharging students and providing a sub-par product). But if REAL universities want to promote education, then they need to strengthen their relationship with the internet. I mean, come on….the cost of on-campus housing, rape culture, and a host of other problems that come with having newly-mented (yet still institutionalized) legal adults put into one space….would be done away with significantly, if US schools promoted this. Young adults can still learn, yet instead of fostering continued adolecense, they will be forced to become adults.

Now I can hear some asshole saying to me “Well, what if they can’t afford computers.” Then just include it in cost of tuition! Surely that can’t be any more expensive than living on campus. That seems to be a rather minor problem.

So we can switch the learning stigma towards on-campus learning, because if you need a campus to learn…then you’re just too fucking lazy to structure and motivate yourself. And if you can’t succeed with online learning….perhaps you shouldn’t be going to college at all.

 

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