The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Seasons in the Sun

One of the main points of the Democratic party's recently announced "innovation agenda" is increasing the prevalence of college education. Rahm Emanuel has phrased it most explicitly:

One, we make college education as universal for the 21st century that a high school education was in the 20th.

Describing such a program as "long on vision and short on specifics" may be the prearranged storyline of the news coverage; but it is hard to see how a program offering us yesterday's solutions tomorrow is displaying "vision".

Undereducation and underemployment are not only economically inefficient; they are also wasteful of the human spirit. Structural problems in higher education in the United States today [here I do not consider the pitiful state of many public primary programs] lead to three such destructive sinks of potential:
  1. Those who find themselves underemployed, especially women attempting to reestablish a career after raising children, are often crushed by the rigidity of the accreditation and hiring processes.
  2. Those considering a trade career, which does not require a college education, cannot undertake it without permanently disqualifying themselves from high-status white-collar work. Thus there is a proliferation of uncaring students motivated only by the desire to keep alive some vague hope.
  3. College itself. Many, and possibly a majority, of college students have no desire to learn and are not being taught anything they care about or need. They are there because it's a good time, because their parents are paying for it, and because -- as noted before -- there is no second chance.

The common structural problem should by now be clear: it is the concept of college as something you do once, at a certain age. A real vision of higher education is one which looks to break down this limitation.

If a nineteen-year-old boy wants to be a plumber, make a bit of money and maybe buy an apartment, society should be eager to support that. But our current system does the opposite: it tells that boy that unless he goes to college, now, then he has no chance of ever being anything more than a plumber. And it tells the truth.

In China or India, young children are tested ruthlessly, and by the age of ten the chosen one or two percent have been shifted into fast-paced schools, the rest left behind. Even in England, a boy's fate is largely fixed at thirteen, when the elite upper schools make their admissions decisions [for girls, it is eleven]. America is meant to be the land of second chances, of "late binding", of letting people freely search for their own way of contributing. Let's start acting like it.