I earned my living teaching college for 29 years, teaching my first course while still a graduate student in 1981 and teaching my last class before taking early retirement (so that I could care for my ailing father) in 2010. I’ve been asked by a fellow Newsviner to write and post a piece on the changes I’ve seen in US higher education during that time and express my opinions on them.
In some very real ways, the educational world in which I started out when I was a freshman in college in 1977 no longer exists. I went to college completely for free on a National Merit Scholarship (and I didn’t even “apply” for it but was automatically considered for it by virtue of my perfect score on the SAT). I also had two other ways I could have gone to college completely for free: the company my Dad worked for annually offered a full scholarship to a child of an employee based on his/her high school record and several individual colleges offered me full free rides as well. Not only did I also go to grad school completely for free, but they actually paid me to go. That world is gone now.
When I graduated from college in 1981, I knew no one in my class who had any significant student debt. I went to an “expensive” private university (though that “expense” seems ludicrously small these days) and my friends who were not on generous scholarships paid the bills with their savings, with grants (which didn’t have to be paid back), and with work study jobs. Even my private college was within the budgets of families who had planned for such expenses in advance. I finished my PhD with only $5000 in student debt, and I wouldn’t even have had that except I borrowed it at those low interest rates to make a downpayment on my home and I had it paid off within a couple of years. That world is gone now.
I don’t think the shift is just that a college education costs so much more now; more importantly, it creates a huge indebtedness on the part of college graduates. No longer can students take classes or choose majors because the subjects interest them; now they must make choices based on their projections of which potential careers will enable them to pay off an adult lifetime worth of educational debt. I see this as a very deliberate strategy on the part of the rich and powerful to make the conditions of getting a college education include the inescapable reality that college graduates will have to work for them forever once their formal educations end. Many students graduating from college this year will still be paying off their college debts when their oldest child starts college.
This has resulted in a major shift from students majoring in liberal arts and sciences fields to students majoring in business and technical fields. The very “meaning” of what it is to be a college graduate is different now. Back in the 1980s, being a college graduate meant that you had a broad-based body of knowledge of math, language, science, civics, history, and so on. That’s no longer true. A student now asks (utterly appropriately, in my opinion), “Why should I go deeper into debt to learn some history or some literature or some art or some foreign language when those things will not add to my earnings capacity once I’m done with school?”
What we lose by this is large numbers of young people who are trained with critical thinking skills, who know how to do research, who know how to analyze information logically, who know how to formulate and articulate their thoughts coherently at length, and who can spot and call out bullsh!t when they encounter it. Again, I see this as a very deliberate strategy on the part of the rich and powerful to lessen the number of people who can “think through” the exploitation in which business and the wealthy are engaging.
We also lose “knowledge base.” If almost no one studies ancient history in depth, for instance, we lose the lessons those people learned the hard way millennia ago and run the very real risk of having to learn them again. Just for example, if no one studies the history of the attempt by the English to import Protestant settlers (mostly Scots) into northern Ireland as a way of diluting the influence and power of the Catholic church in Ireland (resulting in the violence and tensions that persist to this day, centuries later), one cannot apply those lessons to forming an educated opinion about Israeli settlement activities on the West Bank and try to project what the likely results of those contemporary actions may well be.
We see the results of this shift harming our democracy already when people ill-educated in American history blithely assume that the US is a “Christian” nation or was founded based upon Christian principles. We see the results of this shift when large numbers of our citizenry are so ill-educated in basic science that they can’t make informed opinions on topics like climate change or stem cell research or evolution. We see the results of this shift when a significant percentage of our population cannot recognize and compensate for the powerful psychological effects of advertising and marketing and how these forces shape, manipulate, and even actually create our desires.
Higher education has shifted from being a part of the formation of humans and citizens to being the creator of workers and consumers. We are the poorer for it both in terms of the debt we incur in the educational process and in terms of the lack of basic kinds of knowledge in those who go through our educational system. Both that debt and that lack were deliberately, purposefully, knowingly created for the benefit of the business and corporate elite.