Beyond Hillary Clinton’s College Plan

Emmanuel CollegeWe think about society all wrong and that is nowhere as clear as our thinking on the issue of education. Hillary Clinton brought out a plan yesterday to make college far more affordable, and I am largely in agreement with Corey Robin on it: it’s overall a good thing. But the problem we have right now with education is not that it is unaffordable; it is that it is a scam.

The big neoliberal idea is that everyone will get a college degree and then everyone will have a good job. Cue “Kumbaya.” But there are lots of things wrong with this. The most obvious is that if everyone has a college degree then what good is it in getting a job? All you’ve done is require young people to go to school for four more years so that they can do the modern equivalent of the jobs high school graduates did in the 1960s.

Technology Is No Excuse!

Or think about this! The justification is that technology is improving so fast that a more educated workforce is necessary. Wrong! For one thing, who are the idiots who think that going from operating a typewriter to a computer is anything close to as big a jump as going from farming to manufacturing in 1830? A major con has been perpetrated on the workers of America. All this does is make the lives of young people harder while keeping wages down.

In the 1990s, young people were told that the way to a secure, middle-class life was through university. And 20 years later, we see that no, it really wasn’t.

But I really do wonder about the elites who think that modern life is so very complicated that it now requires 16 years of school. In another century, you’re going to be in a wheelchair before you are “qualified for the jobs of today”! It’s all such nonsense.

Pretend to Solve a Problem

What really bugs me about it is that what this is all really about is doing nothing. It’s the same with education “reform,” although there, destroying teacher unions is also important. The real purpose of all this obsession with education as the solution to all our economic problems is simply to push the problem off for a couple of decades. It will take a while to see with education “reform,” but we see it today with college.

It was Bill Clinton who talked about the information economy and lifelong learning. In the 1990s, young people were told that the way to a secure, middle-class life was through university. And 20 years later, we see that no, it really wasn’t. And all these kids have tens of thousands of dollars of debt.

In that way, Hillary Clinton’s plan is good. If we are going to trick kids into getting degrees that won’t do them any economic good, the least we can do is not force them to pay for it. But it remains the case that the Big Brains of the nation are still pushing this fiction.

College Is Great! But Not for the Economy

Don’t get me wrong: I think college is great! I think everyone who wants to go to college should be able to do it — for free. But college shouldn’t be job training. College should be about opening up the mind. And there are lots of other — and for most young people, better — ways to do that. They could travel — maybe do some work in Africa — or Mississippi.

There are an infinite number of ways to expand a mind. But a small percentage of people going to university are there for that reason. And that’s not an attack on the students. They’re just doing what we told them they were supposed to do. And what good has it done? Lots more people with college degrees. Lots more debt. I just don’t see the good.

Colleges should have been outlawed the very moment someone suggested there be a major in business.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

8 thoughts on “Beyond Hillary Clinton’s College Plan

  1. As one of those foolish people trying to get a degree to match my skill set, I cannot possibly comment on this. :D

    • Ah yes, but you are getting a professional degree. And as I said, I don’t blame people for trying. In your case it will certainly work. Too bad for most of the kids though.

  2. Which is why it took me close to 20 years, and four colleges, to finish my worthless BA. (I only finished it as a promise to my dead mom. Be careful what you promise dying people; you can’t later get them to let you off the hook.)

    To me, learning is fun. To everyone, it is. People who say “I hate learning” hate rigidly structured, graded learning. They learn stuff all the time. But I loathed college.

    Until I lucked into finding a community college founded in the 1960s by genuine “education reformers,” a few of whom still teach there. My last class was taught by one of them, and it was only required for students who had designed their own degree plan. The homework was one assignment and one essay. The assignment was “participate in some community engagement you’ve never tried before” (I volunteered for a political campaign.) The essay was “describe in detail your passion for a subject you’ve spent time learning about.” It didn’t even have to be anything you’d studied at the college. Just an example of how learning is fun for you, and learning is lifelong. The prof, a history PhD, included a sample essay he’d submit if he were taking the class. On history? Hell no. On ping-pong. He was a world-class ping-pong player. He’s learned a lot about ping-pong. I wrote a garbage essay trying to prove I’d learned stuff from my history classes, I got an “A,” and his comment was I should have written the essay about beer brewing.

    As you can guess, that college was more my speed than the other three. And it was the only one I was able to afford without student loans. And the only one where I kept some of the required texts for my own reference or to share with friends.

    Maybe that’s a lousy way to teach trombone mastery or astrophysics (although I suspect it’s the best way to teach either.) But a near-generic BA? (Which is what most students get, and it amuses me that “business” is considered a BS. It certainly is BS.) Why make it so rigid, so expensive? To weed out social misfits, of course. It’s about proving you can adapt to pointless standards and arbitrary deadlines and be heavily in debt, so you NEED that job. It’s a compliant corporate drone finishing school (with an internship as your debutante ball.)

    • You can totally back out of deals with people once their dead! Geez, James! As long as you meant it at the time, you did your work. It’s like, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.” They only care while they’re alive. :-)

      There’s been a lot of good work on why college has gotten so expensive. But a lot of it is obvious. Part of it is the student loan system, which is a total scam.

      • I see it the other way ’round. If you only said something to a dying person to make them happy, you’re under no obligation to honor that pledge. But if you meant it, it’s because you valued that person’s advice, and now that they’re gone, you’re stuck with that advice. You can’t talk to them and see if new experiences you’ve both had have changed their assessment.

        I’ve long told brothers that if doctors certified my dad had 24 hours to live, I’d fly out and tell him how much I love Jesus now. I don’t care. When it’s an ongoing conversation where one party is cut off, it’s harder to dimiss their last opinions before the call dropped.

        Sorry for the excess wordage of late. My brain is kinda mush right now! I’m sure you understand (although you wouldn’t annoy anyone else with your screeds!)

        • But if I thought it was good advice, I would do it. And if later I changed my mind, I wouldn’t. Because even if I could imagine an afterlife, I couldn’t imagine one in which they would care. It’s not a big deal. I was being flippant before. But I do think that I would, in general, tell anyone I loved anything they wanted to hear if they were dying. Of course, I’m a lousy liar, so…

  3. It’s gone down the memory hole because by now it’s so obviously ludicrous, but when the neoliberals were pushing ‘trade’ deals and technology in the 90’s, they told us that there is a ‘New Economy’.

    The idea was this: with people more educated and intellectually capable, they would create new economic opportunities. The lost manufacturing jobs, etc., would not matter, because people would have new ways to create industries, and new industries would become possible.

    Basically none of these alleged new industries have appeared, and the ones that have appeared mostly either i) automation (getting rid of people), ii) scams (‘developing apps’; ‘vitamin supplements’) or iii) just ways to extract money from activities people were doing anyway (‘Square’).

    Leftists predicted this in detail. We were called luddites. We were called unimaginative. We were scolded for not wanting to share our ‘trade’ with the world. But our actual reasoning and arguments were ignored. Same as now. I wish I could be comforted by being almost right on this issue. But I’m not. And I was not exactly right, just mostly, because the trend is far more total than I ever had imagined. I was too generous; I got poked in the eye.

    • This is absolutely right. I just finished working on an infographic about internet scams, and they all date well before the internet — some hundreds of years. Amazon doesn’t sell anything that any other retailer doesn’t. Streaming media? Big deal! People always get so excited about these things. Was the Walkman fundamentally different from the transistor radio? I don’t think so. As Ha-Joon Chang has noted, the washing machine changed life far more than the internet. But again, it’s all about not dealing with actual problems. And I think that’s understandable, because ultimately, I think the problem is capitalism itself.

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