Sunday, October 11, 2009

The undergraduate degree: A bourgeois cult symbol

If there's one thing job-hunting in this economy has taught me, it's that an undergraduate education is vastly overrated as far as success goes. Notwithstanding the specious right to go to college for free of which today’s youth and leftist politicians often speak, college does not guarantee success in finding or keeping a job in this economy. It certainly did not help me and millions of other workers avoid layoffs last year. It means little to those who scan a ream of applications --all with degrees listed-- and it certainly means nothing unique to harried recruiters at a crowded job fair.

Mind you, it isn't useless per se, but a cursory examination of just some of the great geniuses of history--Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Leonardo da Vinci, the Aztec engineers who built the great city of Tenochtitl√°n in the middle of soggy lake Texcoco, the Wright brothers, the men who built the Pyramids --all these people did not go to college as we know it. Certainly they studied hard and learnt their respective trades over years of time, but no overpriced, ivy covered campuses did they grace.

And of course we hear all the time about successful entrepreneurs who dropped out of college: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Russell Simmons (Def Jam Records), Jawed Karim (YouTube), Ralph Lauren, even the late Michael Jackson.

Yet we still hear the refrain: Everyone has the right to go to college and get a good education. It's the key to success in the job market.

I concede that most of us aren’t brilliant entrepreneurs, nor do most of us have a rich daddy who owns a local factory, and the system has seemingly been set up so that most of us must enter into the cut-throat, white-collar world in order to have a hope at being awarded a job with a living wage. That means earning the hallowed sheepskin. But does one really learn all the skills and knowledge needed to fully enter into an everyday professional setting?

The particular management, organizational and computer skills I use in my line of work were not bestowed upon me by a professor in a classroom. I certainly learned some interesting and enlightening things in the lecture halls, there’s no denying that. But with the possible exception of my foreign language skills (though alimented by my own efforts anyway), most of the job skills I possess I either learned on-the-job or in my extracurricular activities. In order to do that, I had to go outside the classroom, outside the syllabi and recitations and seek out spaces where I could use and learn more.

Reading , reading some more, listening to a lecture, reading yet some more, writing a paper, and taking any number of guessing game multiple choice exams in order to regurgitate reams of information that you cram into your head exhibit your broad knowledge. Just study what is covered on the exam, and nothing more, and of course one often hears my favorite question: Are the final grades going to be curved? Then it’s more reading. Little practical application or real-life settings can be found here. Surely there are exceptions, but this is the general pattern of what passes for education at American universities these days.

For what it’s worth, one might be better off visiting a library and reading all the books in it or going to a museum or getting a private tutor if one really wants to pursue knowledge. Or at least pursue a vocational degree, where one will learn, really learn, a useful trade and skill. Instead, we have a generation of people with bachelors and masters degrees who work one or two jobs at McDonalds or Starbucks or toil at the behest of any number of faceless temp agencies just to pay the interest on their student loan debt--debt with more zeros than any annual salary they can ever hope to see.

So we've seen that college doesn't necessarily prepare one for the real world, and we see that plenty of people who have smarts, drive and ambition have become successful without the hallowed sheepskin, so let’s ask: What is it really good for, this thing to which we supposedly have a right?

What an undergraduate degree symbolizes nowadays is neither smarts nor expertise nor discipline nor rigorous intellect nor even adequate job, social, or financial planning skills, since these are not the aims of a modern-day university education. Rather, it is a way to weed out the cultured workers from the low-brow; the affluent from the less-affluent; the pacified from the rough-around-the-edges; the best and brightest from the dumb sheep; the ones who “get their hands dirty” with practical skills from those fully indoctrinated in squeaky-clean trivia (which is what most white-collar work is, anyway); the upper and middle classes from the lower classes. In short, its function is to help lock out the undesirable proles from the Inner Circle (be it higher education, government employ, or involvement with the cut-throat, white-collar world).

As far as job hunting goes, the hallowed liberal arts university degree is quite useful indeed for approaching the doors to prestige, if not power--no, not opening them, just increasing the chances of being approved by the genteel gatekeepers and gaining an audience with the Emperor without having the guard dogs set upon you.

And before you say that it used to mean something a long time ago, save for watered-down curricula, keep in mind that in the past only the richest of the rich could go to university, and its role as a gateway to genteel nobility was even more bare-obvious than it is now. I think this will become more obvious as the world economy continues to deflate and people have to seek ever higher degrees and more debt just to get a secretarial job or (heaven forbid) mop floors in a Dunkin Donuts.

In our 21st century society populated by neutered-bourgeois, an undergraduate degree is good for one thing only--a status symbol for the affluent, upwardly mobile middle-class worker; an alluring icon of a bourgeois cult. Indeed, every family in this country has been duped into thinking that this is the only way one can become successful. We are bombarded with statistics showing that college graduates make more than non-graduates. After all, high school or college dropouts often end up flipping burgers and making lattes, right? Otherwise Uncle Sam lures them into the military to kill poor foreigners for the benefit of the ruling class, although with the wars in the Middle East going so badly, that might be a less appealing career path these days.

I do expect teachers or grad students or other educated professionals will sneer at my skepticism of the education system, and of the Holy Degree and its trappings; they will scold me, saying that I am foolish for denying the path to salvation via undergraduate education. Of course, they all have advanced degrees, have clawed their way to the top, have become the new gatekeepers, and (most critically) aren’t on the unemployment lines, so they can afford to say such things.

"Everyone has the right to go to college and get a good education. It's the key to success in the job market"

I would strongly recommend to anyone reading this who is of college-age to consider a vocational school or apprenticeship, where one can learn a useful trade that will guarantee a better salary. The way things are headed, the existing artificial white-collar service economy will begin to wither away, and less employment will be available to those with that hallowed liberal arts degree as we are forced to return to actual industry, production, trade, and thrift. Oh sure, there are still plenty of opportunities for that fancy-pants work we middle class denizens are taught to strive for. But do not expect a renaissance of financial prosperity in the future (i.e., get used to the term jobless recovery), nor should you expect a promise of a fully remunerative career (this graph from the Economic Policy Institute shows employers are forced to work people harder in the name of increasing productivity whilst wages stagnate due to inflation).

In other words, take the modern-day, bourgeois college degree-worshipping evangelist cult with a few grains of organic sea salt.


Private schools are the main ones teaching the hard stuff in Britain these days

University courses important to the economy rely on independent schools for many of their students, says research. These "strategically important and vulnerable" degree subjects include modern languages and engineering. The study for an independent schools' group found a quarter of places in such subjects in leading UK universities went to independent school pupils. Without such pupils the subjects would be at risk, argues the report by an Exeter University academic.

The analysis of university admissions, commissioned by the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC), shows that independent school pupils are disproportionately represented in these economically important subjects. Based on figures from 2006-07, the research says that 42% of undergraduate students entering economics in leading universities were drawn from independent schools. Among modern languages, 28% of French degree students were from independent schools, with the figures 38% for Italian and 41% for Spanish. In mechanical engineering the independent school entry was 26%, in civil engineering it was 25% and in general engineering 36%.

Comparing this with university entrance in 2003-04, report author William Richardson of Exeter University found the proportion of independent pupils in leading universities had either been maintained or had slightly increased. Showing the wider context of these admission figures, about 9% of 17-year-old pupils are in independent schools - and 14% of university entrants are from independent schools.

Without independent pupils, "the study of subjects recognised to be vital to the future of the nation would be in serious jeopardy in many of our leading universities", says Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference chairman Andrew Grant.

Independent schools argue that the research shows the scale of their contribution to maintaining important degree subjects, identified by the government as valuable to the wider economy. It also reflects the extent to which independent schools in England have continued to teach subjects such as modern languages at GCSE and A-level, when they are no longer compulsory in the state sector beyond the age of 14. University modern languages departments have reported problems in finding sufficient applicants, as their potential pool of A-level students has diminished.

In economics, a report last year warned that the subject was at risk of "dying out" in schools - with A-level student numbers down by a quarter in a decade.

The research also follows a report earlier this year into social mobility by MP Alan Milburn, which interpreted the over-representation of independent school pupils in prestigious university courses as evidence of the weaknesses in the ambitions of the state sector and in university admissions. Mr Milburn's report argued that even though participation in university had widened, children from wealthier backgrounds continued to dominate the most sought-after subjects at the most prestigious universities. The report from the HMC shows that 38% of students entering medicine in leading universities are from independent schools.

A survey from the UCU lecturers' union, also released on Tuesday, claims that a majority of people want to see the ending of charitable status for independent schools. It found that 56% of people wanted to abolish charitable status, including 41% of Conservative voters.

At the HMC's annual conference, Mr Grant dismissed claims that charitable status meant that independent schools were a cost to the taxpayer - arguing that private school fees saved the state sector £3bn, in terms of the private pupils who would otherwise have to be taught in state schools.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said: "The government believes that it should be character, endeavour and talent that matter, not life chances at birth, which is why our policies have seen an increase in the proportion of people from less privileged backgrounds going into university. "But we recognise that there is still more to do which is why we continue to invest in initiatives, such as Aimhigher, that encourage students from state schools to aspire to the most competitive courses and universities, and our recent white paper also set out our plans to enhance social mobility in the years to come."


Bright British pupils 'will miss out' on university in row over qualifications

Horror that bright students might be more likely to gain university admission!

Sixth-formers are facing fresh chaos over university admissions following a clash over whether to accept new A* grades. School heads are being urged to prepare bright youngsters for rejection because universities will struggle to whittle down well-qualified pupils applying for places next September.

Prestigious universities are at loggerheads over whether to take the new supergrade into account when choosing between candidates and setting entry requirements. Some, including Oxford, have been accused of 'political correctness' for failing to embrace the A*, being awarded for the first time next summer. The universities are said to be afraid that using the A* would result in an increase in the number of privately-educated pupils winning places. Studies suggest that private school applicants are more likely to gain A*s and will therefore tighten their grip on the top universities.

School heads are also split over whether to include A*s in their performance predictions to universities, leading to claims that thousands of bright children will be disadvantaged. Ministers were accused of failing bright pupils after it emerged they have been pressurising universities into ignoring the A*.

The row erupted as university chiefs warned of intense competition for places next year as the recession continues to deter youngsters from seeking work in a harsh job market. Oxford said the annual university admissions scramble was a 'numbers game' and bright students faced rejection from some of their choices despite having impeccable applications. But the university came in for criticism yesterday for refusing to take into accept A* grades from candidates applying this month. Like most other universities, and in line with Government advice, it will ignore the grade for at least the first few years of its operation.

But Cambridge, Imperial College London and University College London are among universities opting to use it in setting entry requirements for some candidates. Warwick is considering including it in offers for maths and science subjects. Cambridge expects to set conditional offers of one A* and two As for many students. Geoff Parks, director of admissions, said: 'We hope that will seem to be a fairer system because students who get into Cambridge will by and large have higher grades than those who don't.' He revealed former Schools Minister Jim Knight had been 'bending ears' at the university because it was going forward with the A*.

Private school leaders, gathering in Liverpool for the annual meeting of the Headmasters' and Headmasters' Conference, expressed frustration at the reluctance of more institutions to accept the A*. Tim Hands, head of Magdalen College School, said: 'First of all we had pusillanimity because the Government didn't want to introduce it and now we have got stealth. 'The mood is one of resentment at interference, resentment at stealth, shock at a lack of progression in standards and a firm feeling that where people support real educational quality and endeavour they deserve commendation not restraint, arbitrary impositions and politicially-inspired interferences.'

Some state schools are said to be refusing 'in principle' to use A*s when predicting their students' grades on university application forms because they fear it will come to be seen as a passport to a good university.

Oxford said its decision to monitor the grade's implementation for the next two years was a 'pragmatic decision'. 'A lot of teachers have said very clearly, this is a new qualification, we haven't had a chance to teach it yet, and the idea we can accurately predict who will get these A*s, we won't,' said Mike Nicholson, director of admissions.

Professor Michael Whitby, pro-vice-chancellor of Warwick, warned that 2010 would be a 'tough' year for applicants. He said: 'We are under some pressure to rein in our offers next year, with the result that whereas in a normal year people who just missed an offer might get into the Liverpools, Warwicks, Durhams, Oxbridges of this world, in the current climate they might not.'


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