Has a college degree become a bad investment? Better question: is conservative rhetoric the worst investment in history?
Yesterday over at Future Majority, Kevin Bondelli responded to Jack Hough’s New York Post column “Don’t Get That College Degree!” Bondelli’s take led with one of the more terrifying titles I’ve seen lately: “Has College Become a Bad Investment?” Yow. When you dig the hole so deep that you can even use that kind of question as a rhetorical device, you know you’re in some deep, deep kim-chee. Seriously. That one ranks right up there with “Is breathing really a good idea?” and “What are the lasting benefits of a howitzer shot to the balls?”
Snark aside, Bondelli does a nice job of addressing Hough, who “argues that the increase in lifetime wages for graduates no longer makes up for the financial burden of university education and the ensuing student loan burden.” He also takes on one of the GOP’s most successful and devastating canards, explaining that
In 2003 when I was lobbying against tuition increases in Arizona, a Republican state legislator argued that a college degree is a personal investment that the students are paying for their own future financial prosperity.
I second Kevin’s thoughts (and encourage you to click over and read the whole post). However, I also think the response needs to run even deeper. In truth, as stupid as that Repub legislator’s argument was (and in all likelihood, as stupid as the legislator was), it’s an argument that wins over a lot of people if you let its underlying assumption go unchallenged.
Bondelli touches on the point in quoting University of Rhode IslandVice President for Administration and Finance Robert Weygand, who explains that
Public colleges need to promote and publicize the work they do for the community and their contributions to economic development. Well-publicized proof that they make a difference to the state, and not just the earning potential of individual graduates, is meaningful to lawmakers, even in tough times.
The underlying issue that must be dragged out into the light and stomped is that somehow a nation’s education policy is all about individual investment. This is “ownership society”-style bullshit and it traces its “intellectual” roots back through the eight-year lie that was the Reagan administration and into the conservative academic framework laid in the 1960s by the likes of Daniel Bell. It culminated in rhetorical low-water marks like “government isn’t the solution to your problems – it is the problem,” and unfortunately the Newspeak linguistic cross-patch that this crowd inflicted on an easily-duped public is still working its corrosive magic today.
The answer we give when faced with this kind of cynical forked-tonguery must make clear that it’s not about Little Billy choosing whether or not to invest in his future. Instead, the question is about what’s best for the nation. In a society where only the top 5% of economic elites can afford a quality education – and we’re heading in that direction at a rapid pace – that means that 95% of the nation’s intelligence, 95% of its genius, 95% of its creativity and insight and inventiveness and problem solving capacity, 95% of its scientific potential – 95% of that nation’s possibility is at risk. It’s likely doomed to go unrealized.
Imagine that nation engaged in a highly competitive global marketplace with countries that make refining their intelligence, regardless of class or station of birth, a top priority. Imagine a nation that’s much like America in size and socioeconomic structure and overall potential. And imagine that while we’re keeping 95% of our brighest and best away from learning as best we can, they’re moving heaven and earth to get their brightest and best all the education possible.
Let’s go a step further and make this a math question. The US has a population of around 300 million. Statistically speaking, “genius” is a term that (as flawed as it may be) refers to the top 2% intellectually. So that means that America is home to roughly 6 million geniuses. Now, say we only provide quality educational opportunities to the richest 5%. That leaves us with 300,000 of our best minds honest to their sharpest potential.
Now consider that other hypothetical country, call it AltAmerica. Same numbers, only this time you educate all your geniuses. Our 300,000 is now up against their 6 million.
Which nation do you think innovates the best products? (I start with that example, because obviously nothing matters besides feeding the consumerist beast, right?) Who more quickly comes up with cures for diseases? Who creates solutions to pressing social challenges? Who is best able to provide for the common weal while preserving the environment?
Over time, which nation comes to dominate and which one fades?
A nation that adopts a “let Billy decide whether to invest in his future” policy will be, in short order, at the mercy of a nation that makes educating Billy a top priority.
If you don’t like my math, fine, adjust to your liking. But the dynamic remains (and I’m framing the discussion in a restrictive fashion, as well, because you don’t have to be a rated genius to be smart enough to change the world). And by the way, I do have a couple of specific nations in mind. Neither of them has a population of 300 million, either. Both have over a billion people, and they have more honor students than we have students.
That politician that Kevin references is either stupid or corrupt, or maybe both. But whether he’s acting out of class-based malice or simple butt-ignorance, the policy he espouses would, over time, reduce the US to the equivalent if a slobbering backwater surrounded by thrumming, intellect-powered New Atlantises. No doubt he’d like to keep the rabble in its place, educated only enough to provide unquestioning labor for the power elite’s enterprises, but the dangerous fact is that he hasn’t thought this thing all the way through.
Which also demonstrates, by the way, that not everybody in that 5% elite is exactly rocket surgeon material. So maybe my scenario above was actually a little … conservative, if you will.
Thanks to Kevin for taking this issue head-on. I hope he won’t mind me adding my two cents…