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Say Goodbye to Lake Wobegon U. (2)

A. D. Coleman. Photo © 2012 by Anna Lung.Pervasive social promotion and the consequent delusions of grandeur, to which I devoted the first half of this unsolicited commencement address, don’t factor into Jennifer Senior’s January 20, 2013 feature article for New York magazine, “Why You Truly Never Leave High School: New science on its corrosive, traumatizing effects.”

Ms. Senior (yes, apparently that’s her real name) discusses therein recent research indicating that the very worst thing you can do to adolescents is to force them to rise early five days a week and confine them for six hours each of those days for four years in indoor spaces with only other adolescents for company and a few adults as moderators. (Adolescence stretching as it does into the first several years of college, this applies at least to post-secondary frosh and sophs.)

Conventional high school, by those accounts, is bad for your mental health, social development, and intellectual growth. (Such 20th-century educational reformers as A. S. Neill, John Holt, Neil Postman, and Jonathan Kozol would certainly agree.) Throw in the distractions of electronic gadgets and digital media ― not to mention anxieties over bullying and random slaughter ― and it’s a wonder any of you got out with your f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact, much less the skills necessary for entrance-level college coursework. That’s assuming any of you graduating today managed to do so, of course. But I digress.

The Market Value of Your Sheepskin

College Grade Inflation 1940-2008. Chart © copyright 2008 by Stuart Rojstaczer.

College Grade Inflation 1940-2008. Chart © copyright 2008 by Stuart Rojstaczer.

In any event, I’m sure none of that tendency toward grade inflation and social promotion to which I referred earlier applies to whatever college, university, polytechnic or art institute has inadvertently allowed me on stage here today to give this inspirational talk to its graduating class. Nonetheless, the net effect of this contagious syndrome has been to degrade the market value of a college diploma. Though certainly necessary in some fields, it’s merely decorative in others. “[N]early half of [recent] graduates from four-year colleges say they are in jobs that do not require a four-year degree,” according to a wide-ranging study by consulting firm McKinsey & Co. in collaboration with the research data group Chegg. Indeed, in some cases the diploma proves counterproductive, because the degree identifies its holder as overqualified, thus presumably prone to dissatisfaction on the job and unlikely to commit to it long-term.

John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy logoThis has led to a widespread questioning of aspects of the traditional liberal-arts education. For example, in an August 10, 2011 op-ed piece published at the website of The John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, “Down with Research Papers!” by Thomas Bertonneau, the author proposes that the standard research paper ― which typically requires a student to become familiar with some portion of the literature on the given topic, and thus to engage with the measured opinion of recognized figures in the field ― has become outmoded. (He ascribes this, with unconvincing vagueness, to “the internet.”)

Thomas Bertonneau

Thomas Bertonneau

For the research paper Bertonneau would substitute a form that prioritizes the students’ own opinions. “The essay is the genre that answers to the emergency. The essay, not the research paper, best suits the desperate need of badly prepared students to come to terms with primary sources and to apply the wisdom of belles-lettres to the contemporary social, cultural, and political situation,” he argues.

Exactly how “badly prepared students” whose skillset deficiencies include serious reading and writing problems ― present company excepted once again, needless to say ― would manage to “apply the wisdom of belles-lettres to the contemporary social, cultural, and political situation” Bertonneau leaves to the reader’s imagination. He does prescribe doses of Plutarch, Montaigne, and G. K. Chesterton as bracing tonics. Right. It seems to have escaped him that a research paper can include both a distillation of the considered thought of experts and the student’s own newly informed commentary on and dispute with those ideas. (That’s how I’ve always assigned it in my own courses.)

Piled Higher and Deeper

The Economist logoOthers cast a wider net, addressing the larger problem of an oversupply of PhDs in relation to the available employment opportunities, inside academe and out, for those with such credentials. Here’s an excellent contemplation of that situation by an anonymous biologist, “The disposable academic: Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time,” published by The Economist on December 16, 2010, and a well-researched response thereto by Jeremy Garwood at Lab Times, from May 2011.

Meanwhile, more radical thinkers have begun a reconsideration of the entire graduate-school enterprise, especially in the liberal arts. See, for example, “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go,” by Thomas H. Benton, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 30, 2009, “Just Don’t Go, Part 2,” from March 13, 2009, and his even more depressing follow-up, “The Big Lie About the ‘Life of the Mind,'” from February 8, 2010. “Graduate school in the humanities is a trap,” Benton asserts. “It is designed that way. It is structurally based on limiting the options of students and socializing them into believing that it is shameful to abandon ‘the life of the mind.'” He suggests this “should particularly alarm women, who are now the majority of graduate students in the humanities and the overwhelming majority of adjuncts.”

“Thomas H. Benton” is the pen name of one William Pannapacker, associate professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Michigan. For reasons unclear to me, he writes about the same subject under both names, in the same skeptical, cautionary tone. Whatever his reasons for this self-bifurcation, you should consider one of his efforts as Pannapacker essential reading: “Overeducated, Underemployed: How to fix humanities grad school,” published at on July 27, 2011.

Don’t Say I Never Warned You . . .

Society for Photographic Education logoI’m charmed to find that his work under both monikers confirms diagnoses and predictions that I made in my 1978 keynote address to the Society for Photographic Education, “No Future For You? Speculations on the Next Decade in Photography Education.” (It’s in my 1979 book, Light ReadingsClick here for a PDF of that talk.) He also echoes my elaborations on some of those themes in a 1986 lecture I delivered in honor of Manuel Alvarez Bravo at the Rochester Institute of Technology, the pertinent section of which I excerpted under the title “Items for An Agenda” and published first as a magazine column and then as the epilogue to my 1998 collection of essays, Depth of Field. (Click here for a PDF.)

I doubt very much that Benton/Pannapacker has ever heard of me, much less read my work, which I find cheering. It reassures me to read spontaneous, underivative variations on those vintage jeremiads of mine in a major journal of post-secondary education and a prominent mainstream multi-subject website. Perhaps I wasn’t as crazy as people thought when I had the temerity to offer such cautions in the midst of the photo boom of the ’70s and ’80s.

But for those of you graduating today that will come as cold comfort or, more likely, no comfort at all. A system that was still taking shape at the time of my prognoses, and could perhaps have undergone revision had anyone listened back then, has entrenched itself and calcified in the 35 years since my SPE talk.

 . . . When Your Train Gets Lost

Remarkably, members of your own generation (give or take a few years) have begun to challenge the very assumption that a college education and degree ― an MA or MFA, a BA or BFA, even a junior-college AA certificate ― is necessary or useful in the 21st century. They look to a plethora ― indeed, a veritable pantheon ― of prominent figures who skipped higher education entirely. From Bob Dylan, Christina Aguilera, Michael and Janet Jackson, and Will Smith to Rachael Ray, Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and David Karp, there’s a long and expanding list of people who either dropped out of college or never opted in, yet managed to have enormous impact on their culture and, in many cases, also made prodigious amounts of money along the way.

You enter the “real world” at a moment in which adolescent scientists solve problems that have stumped older figures with doctoral degrees from prestigious universities: think here of 18-year-old Indian-American Eesha Khare and her inexpensive 20-second cellphone recharger, or 15-year-old Jack Andraka and his inexpensive advanced pancreatic cancer test. These members of the cohort breathing down your necks need college about as much as the proverbial fish needs a bicycle. The list of teenagers who chose to postpone college, or skip it entirely, in order to change the world and/or make a fortune, and succeeded, grows apace.

Dale J. Stephens, "Hacking Your Education" (2013), cover.

Dale J. Stephens, “Hacking Your Education” (2013), cover.

There’s even an emerging culture dedicated to providing various forms of support for those who, taking their cue from Steve Jobs, decide that “It’s better to be a pirate than join the navy.” Generically called “hacking your education,” this burgeoning movement offers websites, how-to info online and in print, success stories, mentoring, crowdfunding advice for entrepreneurs, alternative environments, and an assortment of other useful tools for those inclined to cut the academic umbilicus early and emerge from the classroom womb as preemies. What with homeschooling and assorted experiments in hands-on education, this has begun to trickle down to the lower grades.

It’s too late for that for some of you, those who conclude their so-called “educational careers” with today’s awarding of diplomas. But others of you, those considering going on for more, or even already committed to doing so, might want to take a step back and weigh the alternatives. You have options you may not have pondered, and role models at whom you might want to take a look.

I might have done that myself, back in the day ― which for me means 1960-67, before many of your parents were born. But setting aside my parents’ expectations, with which I could have negotiated, skipping college would have made me 1A for the draft, cannon fodder for the Vietnam War, so I stayed in school. My entire college education (all in public institutions through my M.A.), tuition and living expenses included, totalled less than $15K, so even if it delayed my engagement with the real world for several years it definitely beat getting my ass shot off.

Morituri Te Salutamus

In the event, here you are, having invested two or more years of your lives and tens of thousands of dollars ― yours, your parents’, or someone else’s ― in acquiring a credential that has decreased in value during the time you devoted to earning it. The market for the knowledge and skills on which most of you concentrated has shrunk during that same period. On average, you’re $26,000 in debt for student loans.

You’ll have ample time for buyer’s remorse. So say goodbye to whatever campus of Lake Wobegon U. you’re leaving, which likely graded you not wisely but too well. Throw those mortarboards in the air, hug the friends and relatives who’ve come to see you off, party tonight with your classmates, sleep in tomorrow, and then go get ’em, kids.

NCTQ Teacher Prep Review 2013, cover.(Postscript, June 18, 2013: In today’s Washington Post, Lyndsey Layton writes that “The vast majority of the 1,430 education programs that prepare the nation’s K-12 teachers are mediocre, according to a first-ever ranking that immediately touched off a firestorm. Released Tuesday by the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based advocacy group, the rankings are part of a $5 million project funded by major U.S. foundations.” Click here to download a PDF file of “an unprecedented evaluation of more than 1,100 colleges and universities that prepare elementary and secondary teachers.” Read it and weep.)

(Part 1 I 2)

This post supported by a donation from the Estate of Lyle Bongé.

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