The Education Delusion…

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From Club Orlov

Recently I have run across a number of articles in American newspapers which emphasize the importance of higher education and reassure us that there is no crisis with the way it is being financed. The fact that such articles are written by PhDs speaks to some of the unfortunate aspects of the problem. I am probably being too kind in assuming that the authors of these articles are deluded; I could just as easily accuse them of being high-ups in a massive Ponzi scheme.

The Washington Post published recently published an article by Donald Heller, an academic and a dean, who asserted that the $1.2 trillion-plus in student loans, with a 15% default rate, is no big deal. Now, even social scientists are supposed to understand that correlation does not equal causality, while some facts he mentioned, such as the fact that college grads are more often employed than high school grads or drop outs, may just indicate that they have more active personalities, not that college allowed them to learn some special skill that made them better baristas. A college degree may or may not pay off over a lifetime, but the debt will certainly come due. While $29,000 (which Heller asserted was an average debt for undergraduate training) may seem like pocket change to an overpaid college administrator, it translates into the inability to afford food or rent for many a college-educated debt slave. Not to be outdone, the New York Times published an article about the “education debate” in which David Leonhart, a journalist of some acclaim and accomplishment, offered what many commenters saw as an advertorial for the higher education industry.

It is interesting to think about how our country produces so many educated fools. Education has been democratized to some extent, and standards have fallen. Today a high school diploma is available to students who can barely read. Mediocre students tend to funnel towards the humanities or social sciences, where mediocrity has become a form of high art. Under the tutelage of professors in these fields who are at best mediocre and at worst ignorant or fraudsters, a new generation of academics is being minted right now. Professors and students alike tend to hide behind large words and awkward turns of phrase.

In science, we use precise terminology to describe specific, observable phenomena. The constant discovery of new organisms, organelles and organic compounds necessitates an ever-expanding vocabulary. Academics in certain other disciplines seem to use highly specific jargon to disguise their lack of new ideas or even the absence of any sort of logic. I do some academic editing, so I know this situation has come full circle—to the point where students of the humanities are unaware that it is only their disciplines that are engaged in the use of specious language to obscure simple concepts. When explaining to one graduate student how he could not make certain assertions about traumatic brain injury based on current science, he told me he didn’t need to understand biology or neuroscience to write about them, he only needed to “understand the discourse.” His liberal arts training, that kind so often claimed to open minds, clearly had the opposite effect: it closed his to reality.

Perhaps this has made him happier? After all, reality can be a pain, so why not just ignore it and engage in “discourse.” Here’s a sample: “The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure. It has marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power…” wrote Judith Butler, who happens to be one of the top philosophers of our day. Do you have any idea what she means? Does she? Exactly! But don’t worry; nobody will ever ask her, or you, to act on it in any meaningful way. All that can be expected of you is that you drink it in, partially digest it, and regurgitate it.

When the physicist Sokal purposely published an article in a prestigious journal for the humanities, which he later revealed to be absolute nonsense, it should have been treated a polite wake up call for the humanities to get rid of the obfuscating mumbo- jumbo and post-modernist blather that clouds so much academic work in these disciplines. Unfortunately, little has changed, and increasing numbers of academics continue to publish works with tenuous connections to reality in ever-less-read journals and books. It is now not unheard of for an academic text to have a publishing run of under 100 books, but even 100 books might be generous given the complete lack of relevance to anything at all of the topics some academics choose to investigate.

When and where the subjects and methods of inquiry are of little relevance, the personalities involved in academia become even more central to their success. Much in the same way that no man would pick a trophy wife based on her ability to solve differential equations rather than on her appearance and demeanor, academia today tends to select for people of little intellectual ability, but with personality traits that are seen as most fitting for academic departments. These traits include embrace of the obligatory optimism of the privileged, which automatically translates into enthusiasm for evangelizing education in the face of pitiful realities.

The list of pitiful realities is too long to include here, but I will highlight just one: the number of people with graduate degrees who rely on food stamps is growing every year. While some might argue the financial consequences of the latest downturn for some uneducated folks have been as dire, this is not a relevant comparison. Hardly anyone who could get a graduate degree would contemplate working as a hamburger flipper instead. The relevant comparison would be with people who invested their time to train for specific trades. A union electrician or carpenter, a construction supervisor, a scrap metal dealer or a plumber usually achieves a six-figure income without incurring any significant educational debt, yet there are plenty of linguists, historians, lawyers and even medical doctors who can only dream of being so lucky.

Academic career paths conform to the same shape as many vaunted professions: it is a pyramid, with little room at the top. Anyone who tells you that upward mobility and advancement are likely outcomes of obtaining higher education is suffering for some sort of vision or logic problem, for it is easy to see that most people will be stuck somewhere near the bottom of the pyramid. The opposite argument—that one progresses through the pyramid—flies in the face of reality. Do you know of any workplaces in America that need more managers than actual workers? Most of us by definition will be humble workers trying to eke out a living in the face of ever-increasing demands and the bizarre whims of ever-richer managers who wll be at best indifferent to our fate.

In my own field the apex of the pyramid is now reaching into the stratosphere. A mere two decades ago the Boston Globe chided a doctor working as a hospital administrator over his generous salary. The doctor made about $300,000 a year while nurses at the hospital he managed made $30,000 a year. Today such numbers seem quaint. Many nurses lost to retirement and attrition have been replaced with an army of “techs” who make 9 or 10 dollars an hour without benefits, while healthcare administrators are paid salaries in the millions. Many high level administrators don’t even possess the credential of being a medical doctor, nurse or scientist; after all, why would our managers ever get their hands dirty with the actual real painful work of medicine when they can manage it from oak-paneled board rooms?

Defenders of academia claim that a similar process has taken place within American universities, and that an evil class of administrators has taken over their precious collective body. To the extent such a process has happened, it may have been due to the weaknesses of the academy and academics. Ironically the liberal arts are not intellectual enough. The average café in the Middle East often has more honest conversation about ideas and social realities going on than many graduate departments of the humanities in the US. Ask some average, practical-minded Americans how they feel about academics, and they will admit that these emperors have no clothes. At best, academia is seen as providing a refuge for people who can’t cope with the real world—a sort of collection of mental institutions and halfway houses for the intellectually differently abled, if you will. The question is, as a society with so many poor people, increasing numbers of them direct products of academia, should we continue to support these academic institutions by entrusting our children to their care? Shouldn’t the real intellectuals (should any still exist) be the first to publicly question the validity of this arrangement? Where are the great minds of the day, and why won’t they speak about this loudly and publicly? Instead, the pages of this nation’s papers which have been crowded with nonsense by half-wits claiming that more and more debt-enabled education will make this a stronger nation.
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