Saturday, August 31, 2013

Academy Fight Song

This essay starts with utopia--the utopia known as the American university. It is the finest educational institution in the world, everyone tells us. Indeed, to judge by the praise that is heaped upon it, the American university may be our best institution, period. With its peaceful quadrangles and prosperity-bringing innovation, the university is more spiritually satisfying than the church, more nurturing than the family, more productive than any industry.

The university deals in dreams. Like other utopias--like Walt Disney World, like the ambrosial lands shown in perfume advertisements, like the competitive Valhalla of the Olympics--the university is a place of wish fulfillment and infinite possibility. It is the four-year luxury cruise that will transport us gently across the gulf of class. It is the wrought-iron gateway to the land of lifelong affluence.

It is not the university itself that tells us these things; everyone does. It is the president of the United States. It is our most respected political commentators and economists. It is our business heroes and our sports heroes. It is our favorite teacher and our guidance counselor and maybe even our own Tiger Mom. They've been to the university, after all. They know.

When we reach the end of high school, we approach the next life, the university life, in the manner of children writing letters to Santa. Oh, we promise to be so very good. We open our hearts to the beloved institution. We get good grades. We do our best on standardized tests. We earnestly list our first, second, third choices. We tell them what we want to be when we grow up. We confide our wishes. We stare at the stock photos of smiling students, we visit the campus, and we find, always, that it is so very beautiful.

And when that fat acceptance letter comes--oh, it is the greatest moment of personal vindication most of us have experienced. Our hard work has paid off. We have been chosen.

Then several years pass, and one day we wake up to discover there is no Santa Claus. Somehow, we have been had. We are a hundred thousand dollars in debt, and there is no clear way to escape it. We have no prospects to speak of. And if those damned dreams of ours happened to have taken a particularly fantastic turn and urged us to get a PhD, then the learning really begins.


Go back to the beginning, back to the days when people first understood a character-building college diploma to be the ticket to middle-class success. We would forge a model republic of citizen-students, who would redeem the merit badges of academic achievement for spots in the upper reaches of corporate capitalism. The totems of the modern American striver were to be the University Credential and the Corner Office, and prosperity would reward the ablest.

And so the story remains today, despite everything that has happened in the realms of the corporation and the university. We might worry from time to time about the liberal professors who infest the academy, but school is still where you go to "write your destiny," to use President Obama's 2010 description of education generally. Go to college, or else your destiny will be written by someone else. The bachelor's degree that universities issue is a "credential" that's "a prerequisite for 21st century jobs," says the White House website. Obama himself equates education with upward mobility--more schooling equals more success--as well as with national greatness. "The kinds of opportunities that are open to you will be determined by how far you go in school," he declared a few years ago.

In other words, the farther you go in school, the farther you'll go in life. And at a time when other countries are competing with us like never before, when students around the world are working harder than ever, and doing better than ever, your success in school will also help determine America's success in the twenty-first century.This is commonplace and unremarkable to the point of being utterly hackneyed. Everyone says this. It is obvious. Thomas Friedman, the New York Times foreign affairs columnist who has refashioned himself into the Lord Protector of Learning in recent years, says the same thing, constantly: you'd better have the schooling and the skills that the entrepreneurial class demands if you want to make even a minimal living. The higher education mantra is possibly the greatest clichin American public life.

And so the dreams proliferate. Education is the competitive advantage that might save our skins as we compete more and more directly with China and Vietnam and the Philippines, the journalists say. Education is what explains income inequality, chime the economists, and more education is what will roll it back. In fact, education is just about the only way we can justify being paid for our work at all; it is the only quantifiable input that makes us valuable or gives us "skills."

Quantifiable, yes, but only vaguely. No one really knows the particular contents of the education that is supposed to save us. It is, again, a dream, a secret formula, a black box into which we pour money and out of which comes uplift or enrichment or wish-fulfillment. How a college education manages to do these marvelous things--Is it calculus? Is it classics?--is a subject of hot controversy. All we know for sure is that people who go to college are affluent; it follows naturally that if you send more people to college, you will have yourself a more affluent country.

by Thomas Frank, The Baffler |Image:Spencer Walts
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