Monday, September 06, 2010

Values of a College Education

Much of my adult life I've spent enrolled in, or usually just around, various universities and colleges. This is because I appreciate some of the fresh ideas and the open-mindedness that is often associated with such institutions. I like to see prominent speakers come to town for participation in panels, or public discussions, or simply to give lectures about their fields of expertise. And I admire the passion that so many people around campus have about various subjects -- whether of a technical nature or with more obvious social importance. And, honestly, I often appreciate the decadent revelry that takes place throughout the school year.

That said... in just the last 15 years I have noticed some very disturbing trends which are making institutions of higher learning less beneficial to those enrolled within them and for society at large. Certainly some of these trends have been manifesting for some time longer than the last decade or so, and more seasoned academics could probably point out larger more insidious differences between today's college experience compared to campus life a few decades ago. But it's also possible that negative changes have started to occur more rapidly and with greater consequences to society as a whole.

Empathy (and the lack thereof)

As an example of a sudden negative change within the student body, I'd like to proceed by drawing your attention to a fairly sizable psychological study which suggests that... "College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait." Now... I realize that few things are shocking to us in our generally desensitized culture, but this is a sudden (and possibly serious) development. So when I complain that college kids these days are arrogant, self-centered, and shallow... these aren't merely the grumblings of a blossoming curmudgeon! This can clinically be shown as true!

It might also be fair to consider that this sudden decline of empathy is possibly manifesting throughout American society -- and it's probably far more important when this dissolved characteristic becomes more prominent in police officers, soldiers, business people, and politicians. Nevertheless... the fact remains and, in many cases, these students will soon become members of the military or the business community or the government. Students today, on the fast track to power, are quickly becoming less empathetic. It may be impossible to calculate the long term cumulative effects on society.

The reasons behind this increasing emotional hollowness are probably very diverse. Recent changes in the K-12 school system are likely to blame for this phenomenon, at least in part. Newly built schools look more like prisons, technical drilling is more prominent than teaching methods of critical thought, and the slightest infractions within the mandatory school system are punished harshly. And although the following is also probably having negative effects on the broader society... psychological pharmaceuticals are being prescribed in a most irresponsible manner. It was recently revealed that: "Nearly 1 million American children may have been misdiagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, not because they have real behaviour problems but because they were the youngest in their kindergarten, researchers say." Read that last quote again and realize that many of those children were not just misdiagnosed, but also medicated with potentially dangerous pharmaceutical drugs.

Again, it is possible to take a look at broader society and see certain growing problems across the board. But this article is specifically trying to draw attention to one of the most revered institutions in our society and the fate and circumstances of young people in society deserves particular attention.

Corporate Homogenization & Gentrification

College campuses, as many have idealized, were formerly places of cutting-edge ideas -- and not just for the military-industrial complex, but also for progressive social change. As preeminently important as the American universities may have been for the creation of things like the atomic bomb or agent orange, they've also had periods of relative redemption when students and faculty rallied, en masse, against war, racism, and other social ills. While many students have historically worked for the misnamed concept of "defense," many also realised that the best defense was actually social justice, equality, and freedom.

However, in modern times, the corporations have played a greater role in determining the focus of American Universities. Intellectual impartiality has been replaced by overt corporate funding of major departments. And little doubt can be held that continuing corporate grants have been a key issue when determining who will hold the highest administrative positions on campus. With vast corporate contributions being made from the interests of nuclear, timber, computer sciences, bio-tech, marketing, et cetera... it is no surprise that the power of these departments has grown more than they otherwise might have. Those subsidies allow the related departments to become prominent on campus while other less technical fields increasingly become window dressing for the techno-industrial corporate thrust. And with major corporate donations propping up the administrative hierarchies... criticism of techno-industrial corporate culture becomes subtly more marginalized and less acceptable overall.

At the same time that colleges and universities have been getting more corporate donations (as opposed to private individual endowments in years past), tuition costs have quite dramatically increased in recent years -- far outpacing standard cost of living increases. And, in a way, this increase in tuition not only draws the focus of most criticism, but it also may serve to stymie other general criticism of the universities and their corporate backers. I speculate that this could be because the students capable of affording a college education will increasingly come from more affluent families -- while those with scholarships will increasingly come with corporate sponsors (and, for fear of their tenuous position, they may be more leery of criticizing the university system generally anyway). Basically... what we are seeing is the gentrification college campuses. And, arguably, the more affluent students (as well as those with corporate scholarships) might be more content and feel less reason for criticizing the system in general. So... less and less is the university campus a place where people of diverse backgrounds can come to discuss, debate, and argue about high ideals, and instead the campus is becoming a place for relatively well-to-do people who are enrolled with those beholden to corporate interests (and those who are in no financial position to rock the boat and risk their potential means of upward mobility).

As the gap between rich and poor increases, the gentrification on campus masks this simple reality -- as courses dealing with issues of equality, justice, and freedom are displaced subtly by classes teaching technical skills and better marketing techniques. Coincidentally... the most egregious and unethical corporations not only sponsor the schools directly, but they are given priviliged spots on campus -- for example, Monsanto or Microsoft might sponsor an entire department while McDonald's might have a restaurant in a prime area. And then, because more affluent people are attending the schools, even more dubious corporate interests might move into the college part of town to cater to the affluent students (while the less wealthy members of the community become marginalized and are, often literally, pushed aside). In an effort to "solve" the homeless problem, for example, or to make the community seem safer to bourgeois sensibilities, the colleges increasingly support more police patrols of the area. And all this creates a scenario where corporate power is not only reified on campus as something to be held sacrosanct, but even in the broader community any act of dissent becomes less likely and more of a risk. This is the real risk, and reality, of gentrification.

Bad Investments and the Future Technocrats of America

Now, I don't want to give an impression that the relatively well-to-do, or any of the other hard-working students, are guaranteed future success because of any time (or money) spent in college. Some, of course, will undoubtedly succeed in satisfying careers after graduating. But is their success because they went to college or because they were driven and intelligent people to begin with? An article written a couple years ago entitled, "America's Most Overrated Product: the Bachelor's Degree", addresses this overall subject quite well. To wit, allow me to share a few quotes from the article:

"Perhaps worst of all, even those who do manage to graduate too rarely end up in careers that require a college education. So it's not surprising that when you hop into a cab or walk into a restaurant, you're likely to meet workers who spent years and their family's life savings on college, only to end up with a job they could have done as a high-school dropout."


"Perhaps more surprising, even those high-school students who are fully qualified to attend college are increasingly unlikely to derive enough benefit to justify the often six-figure cost and four to six years (or more) it takes to graduate. Research suggests that more than 40 percent of freshmen at four-year institutions do not graduate in six years."


"Colleges make money whether or not a student learns, whether or not she graduates, and whether or not he finds good employment. Let the buyer beware."

I think that sums it up nicely what I think about college as an investment (but you might be able to find the rest of the article I've cited with THIS LINK, maybe).

But it's not just the dubious financial returns which call into question the value of a college education...

Suppose one graduates with one of several technical degrees. And suppose one even gets a job because of it and earns what is considered a reasonable salary. How many of these lucky young technocrats are actually going to like their jobs? How many are going to be emotionally satisfied with the work they do? And how many are essentially going to be bureaucrats who rubber stamp forms all day sending documents from one pile to the next? That may not really be an oversimplification, but let's even assume otherwise. So... how many of these content graduates are going to be working for the military-industrial complex? How many are going to work for the prison-industrial complex and further the drug war? Do these jobs really benefit society? In the long run, are they even likely to make the lives of those employed at them better? What kind of world are we creating when people enjoy designing new weapons and better forms of criminal justice (sic)?

And what about all those who will merely go to work in the consumer industry... they'll be making marketing a multitude of new disposable products and toxic chemicals that don't decompose for thousands of years. Sure, some might arguably make a more ecologically sound product... but let's not kid ourselves about what the masses of their peers will be up to. It's like the internet -- sure, it's made some communication easier and some facts easier to find, but it's also modernized marketing, increased sales, and facilitated the creation of more toxic trash than any other technology. It's all about cognitive dissonance, and our modern society has a plentiful supply.

College Life and Campus Activism

Perhaps the underlying reason I've written this article is because life around campus has become so uninspired, boorish, and cliché. Perhaps it was the latest issue of the school paper that bored me to tears. But what I really think inspired this article is the seeming lack of passion and the lack of appreciation about actually being alive, as a young adult, now, in this incredible day and age! And I'm not just talking about the passion associated with being young, drunk, wealthy, and/or horny. We live in a time with nearly 7 billion people, video on demand, international travel over night, and the largest library in the history of the world is at our fingertips! We live in an age when 1 billion people suffer malnutrition each year, wars rage, veritable slaves make our clothes, the Gulf of Mexico has essentially been turned into a hazardous waste zone (to go along with oceanic garbage gyres), and the threat of mass extinction looms over the next generation because of climate change. But, beyond the drunken revelry... where is the widespread passion about these things on campus?

As a small example of how things have changed over the years, let's look at Madison, WI (a relatively left-of-center college town in the midwest). Each year in Madison is an event known as the "The Mifflin Street Block Party." It has been billed as "the largest street party in America" and as many as 20,000 people have gathered for it. Bands play, stale corporate booze is sold, and students basically party, get drunk, and several inevitably get arrested or ticketed in scores. Students often like to pose for pictures with the police who will later be arresting them. Ok. Fine. Whatever. But what about the history of this seemingly innocuous event? According to the Wikipedia entry on the subject:

"The Mifflin Street Block Party began in 1969 as a street protest, which involved dancing in protest against the Vietnam War. Its original date, May 3, was set to coincide with the one year anniversary of the French student rebellion. Anti-war sentiments had accelerated in Madison since the 1967 Dow Chemical protest in which thousands of students occupied, and were violently expelled from, Ingraham Hall. The original event arose as part of a continuing conflict between students and police in the 'Miffland' area, centered on Mifflin Street. Police refused to allow permission for the street dance and when they entered the area in response to a noise complaint, a confrontation ensued that lasted three nights and spread into the surrounding student areas. Students threw stones at the police and constructed barricades to defend themselves. The police responded with tear gas and billy clubs. At the end, 70 people were injured and more than 100 arrested."

Now... regardless of how one feels about the history, THAT is what I call passion. An unsanctioned dance party, an act of solidarity, a protest against war, occupying a campus building, and a standoff with the police! Any of these things seem far more passionate than basically getting drunk, beaten up, and/or arrested for no good reason. And, by the way, you can bet that the police forces have a greater understanding of the history surrounding this event than the students do.

But note that Madison is a relatively small city in central Wisconsin! Wilder events were taking place on campuses across the country! And we're talking about a wide range of activities before we get to Berkeley California and the campus there (which Gov. Ronald Reagan, in 1966, called "a haven for communist sympathizers, protesters and sex deviants"). And I would be remiss if I failed to mention some recent protests which have occurred in Berkeley surrounding tuition hikes... but they were largely about just that.

So if events like "The Mifflin Street Party" could take place in a small midwestern city 40 years ago... why not now -- on campuses across the country? The issues society must deal with have quite arguably gotten worse and leading scientific bodies will confirm the dire threats posed to human existence. Global warming (if you believe the most prestigious scientific bodies in the world) is predicted, on its own, to be utterly devastating by the end of this century (and the negative feedback loops will continue well past then). And this is even before any other potential disasters take place -- like unthinkable wars -- because of the environmental degradation. We're talking about the likely extinction of human beings within the next few generations and it hardly registers at all!

Wrapping It All Up

Ok... I was starting to rant, but I almost take pride in that. And I've possibly made my point... or have at least been able to vent. I expect nothing more than shrugs of shoulders in regard to this article. Were it widely discussed, I'd expect little more than shallow mockery. That too, is ok. Personally, I admit I'm no longer very prone to taking to the streets or acting out any frustrations or feelings of discontent. And maybe that's telling in itself (as I was once something of a firebrand).

Like many others, I have also probably become somewhat cold and desensitized. And perhaps that's for the best. Perhaps it's too much to look at the state of the world and expect any sort of action -- much less a meaningful response from the masses. And, perhaps it's best, in some ways, if we don't respond too passionately. Maybe the human psyche is unprepared to accept the totality of the modern world we live in. But I can't help feeling that even a minor protest against the current conditions would display a little bit of dignity -- which is perhaps the only thing left which might make us at all redeemable as a species. And I also can't help but to wonder... what do any of us really have to lose? Freedom and security are constantly at risk anyway in this Orwellian reality and we are collectively confronted with dire threats to the very existence of humanity.

So... I wish good luck to all the students. May you find your humanity and may you desire more than a drunken screw or a mundane career.