Now is a time to give voice to the hard, embarrassing truths. One of the hardest and most embarrassing to confess is that the democratization of higher education has been a failure.
We flatter ourselves that America is the land of individuality, and that college is the place we go to “find” our unique “selves.” In fact, at prohibitive cost, college is churning out a single kind of person — self-entitled, immature and compliant. The nation’s prestigious cookie-cutters, and the human cookies they mass produce, are luxuries we can no longer afford.
As commentators begin to warn of an “education bubble” fueled by student debt, graduate unemployment and a rise in tuition that outstrips the pace of inflation and wages, fears of a college crash arise from our shared myth that economics defines our moral ideal of higher education for all.
College should be for everyone, we believe, because no college means no job, or none worth having. Americans without a degree are closed off to the lifestyle that gives our modern lives meaning. They lack access to spending power that strengthens apace with their personal identities as career professionals.
At the heart of this view, which seems to accord so well with reality, is a belief that one’s status as a member of legitimate society is determined in America by economics — and that one’s economic status, as a rule, is determined most of all by whether or not you’ve been admitted to college.
This is an illusion — as the very economic value of a college degree shows. For what is it about going to college that results in a job and a “future”? In a few technical or theoretical fields, the answer is still the education. Some students still get hired for mastering a disciplined training in highly specialized skills.
More are hired simply because they have a degree. Relative to that credential, the particulars of their coursework, field of study and sometimes even academic performance are irrelevant.
We do not fixate on higher education as the key to employment because it trains Americans how and where to take their place in the economy. The market does that for them.
We fixate on higher education as the key to employment because no other institution but college really acculturates Americans into “legitimate” society. Those who do not attend college are second-class citizens in a cultural sense first, and in an economic one only second.
Regrettably, the personalities produced by this acculturation process are deeply dysfunctional. With stunning efficacy, college administrators have implemented their cultural visions with ubiquitous, standardized policies that dramatically shape the character of college students and graduates. Rather than being tutored in specific skills and fields, students are trained above all to publicly embrace official moral programming, regulations and ceremonies.
On the surface, it is the most sensitive, placid, managed and idealistic culture the world has ever seen. But below, students busily learn the cynical rules of the unofficial world that thrives beyond the reach of administrators’ moral police power. Pent-up longings for transgressive recreation collide with psychological “issues” and “baggage” that the dark corners of hedonism often worsen.
The contrast intensifies as students enter professional life. Inside the workplace, careers are captive to maternalistic human resources departments that subject all employees to unending sensitivity seminars, team-building retreats and performance reviews. Outside the workplace, singles and couples struggle over the spoils of mutual manipulation and forced intimacy.
This is not a universal experience. But it is the definitive experience of generations of college students and graduates.
It is the direct consequence of the use of higher education as our principal engine of social — not economic — equality. Nevertheless, its economic knock-on effects are profound. Millions of parents invest incredible sums of time, money and productive energy to get their children into the “right” college. Millions of students expend vast amounts of the same resources — this time, often borrowed — to get out of college with the “right” credential. And millions of corporations hire these students for little more reason than that they are applying at the “right” time.
At the wrong time, like the midst of this protracted economic crisis, the job is gone, the credential is useless, the costs are sunk — and the precarious, expensive system of rewards that compensates and justifies the rotten culture and rotten character of America’s college experience also begins to rot away.
The victims of all three types of rot are poorly suited to recover from today’s crisis. Neither life nor learning have equipped them for success as entrepreneurs. The loss of a foreordained career track strikes a devastating blow, not only against their prejudices but their very identities. In tough economic times, their appetites for pleasure and leisure tug them toward downward mobility.
Upward mobility once fueled the rise of American culture to a position of global preeminence. But the sweeping mid-century shift in America’s cultural foundations ushered in a cult of upward mobility. The spread of social equality was seen to confer a virtual right to progressive financial and professional success.
That view of self-actualization is now in the process of being discredited by political and economic reality. Yet the cultural presumptions behind it are not only intact but still institutionally ascendant.
The fate of tuition, endowments and acceptance rates is not insignificant, but it is secondary. When it comes to higher education, the crash that matters most is the coming collapse of a worldview.
James Poulos is the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV. A doctoral candidate in Government at Georgetown University, he holds degrees from Duke and USC Law. His writing has appeared in The American Conservative, The Boston Globe, Cato Unbound, The National Interest, and The Weekly Standard, among others, and is featured in the collection Proud to Be Right, edited by Jonah Goldberg. He has been an editor at Ricochet.com and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. He lives in Los Angeles. His Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.