The College-Industrial Complex

…takes a blow:

Let’s see. Where is a teenager more likely to learn the basic and transferable virtue of showing up every day and on time, not to mention how to get along with a boss and fit into an organization — as a communications and binge-drinking double major at Missoula State University, or as a mechanic fixing broken rig equipment? Too many high-school graduates are reflexively going to college as it is, without a clue what they are doing there or how to take advantage of higher education. Mandatory stints in the private economy before college enrollment could do wonders for study skills. If, by deferring or maybe even skipping college entirely, students were foregoing their one hope for immersion in Western civilization, there would indeed be grounds for regret. But colleges’ own curricular decisions have long since destroyed their right to present themselves as a gateway for precious knowledge of the past.

No kidding.

A lot of people are in college who don’t belong there, and don’t really know why they’re there, wasting their or their parents’ money, or accumulating debt undischargeable in a bankruptcy, except society has told them that it is expected of them. Many of them would be a lot better off getting jobs after high school, and then, after they’ve figured out what they want to do, going to school if their goals require it. In general, older students with life experience (and particularly veterans) are more motivated, and will get much more out of college than someone who just graduated high school (and was perhaps unprepared for college by the terrible public school system).

After I (barely) graduated high school, I was in no mood for college (I didn’t even bother to take the SAT), and went to work for a year or so repairing Volkswagens. That was enough experience to tell me that I didn’t want to do it all my life, and I went to community college for a couple years, picking up enough pre-engineering courses with As to get into Michigan engineering school, something that I wouldn’t have been able to do right out of high school with my grades. And if you want to learn, and save money, you’ll actually get a better education at a community college than a major university for your freshman and sophomore years, because classes will be smaller, with more individual attention from the instructors. It’s only the advanced courses that require a university.

[Update a while later]

A campus full of contradictions:

…perhaps a fourth of the liberal arts courses — many would judge more like 50% — would never have been allowed in the curriculum just 40 years ago. They tend to foster the two most regrettable traits in a young mind — ignorance of the uninformed combined with the arrogance of the zealot. All too often students in these courses become revved up over a particular writ — solar power, gay marriage, the war on women, multiculturalism — without the skills to present their views logically and persuasively in response to criticism. Heat, not light, is the objective of these classes.

Why are these courses, then, taught?

For a variety of practical reasons: 1) often the professors are rehashing their doctoral theses or narrow journal articles and are not capable of mastering a wider subject (e.g., teaching a class in “The Other in Advertising” is a lot easier than a systematic history of California); 2) the quality of today’s students is so questionable that the social sciences have stepped up to service the under-qualified, in the sense of providing courses, grades, and graduation possibilities; 3) the university does not see itself as a disinterested nexus of ideas, where for a brief four years students are trained how to think, given a corpus of fact-based knowledge about their nation and world, and expected to develop an aesthetic sense of art, music, and literature. Instead college is intended as a sort of boot camp for the progressive army, where recruits are trained and do not question their commissars.

So the new curriculum in the social sciences and humanities fills a need of sorts, and the result is that today’s graduating English major probably cannot name six Shakespearean plays; the history major cannot distinguish Verdun from Shiloh; the philosophy major has not read Aristotle’s Poetics or Plato’s Laws; and the political science major knows very little of Machiavelli or Tocqueville — but all of the above do know that the planet is heating up due to capitalist greed, the history of the United States is largely a story of oppression, the UN and the EU offer a superior paradigm to the U.S. Constitution, and there are some scary gun-owning, carbon-fuel burning, heterosexual-marrying nuts outside the campus.

If we ask why vocational and tech schools sprout up around the traditional university campus, it is because they are upfront about their nuts-and-bolts, get-a-job education: no need to worry about “liberal arts” or “the humanities” — especially given that the universities’ General Education core is not very general and not very educational any more. Yes, I am worried that the University of Phoenix graduate has not read Dante, but more worried that the CSU Fresno graduate has not either, and the former is far more intellectually honest about that lapse than the latter.

What a disaster.

9 thoughts on “The College-Industrial Complex”

  1. Agree with your last paragraph. I recently took microbiology and chem courses at a local college. They were far better than the same classes I took 25 years ago at a big university. More rigorous, demanding more work, papers and tests hand graded by the profs, who were not grad students, but actual PHDs.

  2. I was in Huntsville recently at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. When I first started there in 1988 the student population was about 7100. It peaked around the year that I left in 1997 at 8500 students. It is now back down to 7500 students and declining.

    The university in terms of square feet of building space has more than tripled in size and is still building new buildings. The only thing keeping it afloat is that they are milking the research institute for funds to cover overhead.

  3. I had a buddy in college who went to community college for the first two years then transferred to the University I was attending for the last two. When he told me that, it struck me, even way back then, that that was the superior way to go. I now recommend that to anyone contemplating college.

    I was an RA in a dorm for a few years and the dorms were almost all freshman. o I’d get to greet the new 18 year olds and almost to a man they said they were pre-med. Then, after the first week, and their first chemistry quiz where they scored maybe a 3 out of 100 (that’s not a typo – chem class was the first pre-med filter), they’d give up the fantasy of being Dr. Kildare. but then they were totally at a loss as to what they wanted to do. And many of them stayed that way for years.

  4. Success is determined at least 85% by the quality of the student, not the quality of the institution. So getting a “real job” for a few years, or doing the first two years at a community college, or both…no worries. There is a (maybe smallish) flip side though: college can provide a rudderless 18-year-old with a stable direction for his/her life, but there has to be something of worth underneath to start with (the quality of the student thing again).

    1. There is a (maybe smallish) flip side though: the military can provide a rudderless 18-year-old with a stable direction for his/her life.


  5. Of course, maybe the POTUS should just sign an executive decree (no need to bother with Congress) granting all 18-year-olds a college degree; that would solve the unemployment problem right there and then!

    1. That’ll never happen. First, it wouldn’t funnel enough federal money to the universities who in turn send it back in the form of campaign contributions. Second, there’s not enough opportunity for graft. Besides, there would be little need for most of the universities and you’d have a lot of unemployed and unemployable academics hitting an already tough job market.

  6. When I graduated high school in 1975, I wasn’t sure of what I wanted to do. While I had good grades and a solid ACT score, I wasn’t ready for college. So, I enlisted in the Army instead. Becoming a paratrooper (airborne infantry) let me get some wildness out of my system.

    A few years later, I switched over to the Air Force*. While stationed in Nebraska, I was able to take some community college courses. After separating from the Air Force in 1982, I went to a small 4 year university in part because I wanted the small class sizes and in part because that’s the best I could afford. I was 25 and paying for a lot of my college on my own, so the idea of wasting my own money by skipping class never entered my mind.** I doubled down, taking from 18-23 hours per term so I could graduate in 1984 and get on with my life.

    Going to college right out of high school would’ve been a serious mistake for me but perhaps not of others. Serving in the military let me grow up and by the time I was able to attend college full time, I was more than ready for it.

    *One thing that attracted me to the Air Force was that the officers (aircrew) were the ones shot at while the enlisted men (for the most part) waited for them back at the base. This struck me as very civilized.

    **Education is one of the few things where most people don’t complain about getting less than what they paid for. Get out early or class canceled? Bonus! Except when you’re paying for it yourself.

  7. Rand,

    You are out of date in terms of community colleges.

    [[And if you want to learn, and save money, you’ll actually get a better education at a community college than a major university for your freshman and sophomore years, because classes will be smaller, with more individual attention from the instructors. It’s only the advanced courses that require a university.]]]

    Many community colleges like Great Basin now offer Bachelor degrees, called Bachelors in Applied Science with the emphasis on applied.

    But then the lack of practical knowledge has always been the problem with graduates from elite schools. As the famous CEO of Avis in the 1960’s, Robert Townsend, stated if you want real managers go to the small state colleges but don’t go to Harvard. The only thing Harvard MBAs are good for are placing the name on the business to attract investors. That is from his classic book “Up the Organization”.

    Townsend, Robert L. (1970). Up the Organization; How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 188.

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