Monday, October 17, 2011

"If everyone has a degree, then nobody does"

Just a little while ago, I had a few musings (see here, here and here) about the declining value of a college education.

Now, it turns out that the same realization has hit many of those in the collection of communists, anti-Semites and anarchists who call themselves the "Occupy" movement. Whether it's on Wall Street, in D.C. or in downtown Minneapolis, the few coherent complaints that come from the group often boil down to "I have a degree and I can't find a job." National Review's Charles C.W. Cooke has spent some time in lower Manhattan, and filed this report, which I found interesting. Enjoy.

The number of people participating in the Occupy Wall Street sit-ins because they are angry that their education has not yielded the fruits that they hoped it would becomes more apparent by the day. Many of the protesters I have met are understandably ruffled that they are unemployed, and they often finish their remonstrations with a non-sequitur, delivered as if it were a knockout blow: “And I went to college!” Well, one might ask, “So what?”

I first noticed this “college = good life” fallacy back in England. A close friend of mine was looking for a job straight out of college, and remained unemployed for six months while he searched for what he described as a “graduate job.” Outside of those careers that rely on specific skills and expertise — doctors, veterinarians, and so forth — I have never been sure quite what this term means. My friend has a degree in modern history. Congratulations! But there is no obvious career path for this qualification. Why should it lend itself more to working in, say, finance than to working in a 7-Eleven? Compare this attitude to that exhibited by another friend of mine — a recently naturalized American citizen. After her parents escaped from the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s and fled to the United States, her engineer father worked as a garbageman for five years until he found a job which tallied more closely with his abilities. At no point did he complain. Was it a waste of talent? Undoubtedly. Did he have a right to a “post-graduate job”? No. That’s just not how free economies work.

Yet you would not know this from the prevailing attitude. Each year in Britain, scores of intellectually average people graduate from intellectually average institutions for no better reason than that they think they should. Emerging from graduation ceremonies, they proudly wave an expensive piece of paper above their heads, which in many cases is worth little more than the Munich Agreement. And months later, when the euphoria abates, they wonder out loud why they are no more employable than before. Given the promises of milk and honey that have been made to them, this is apprehensible. But those promises have always been laughably misguided. The late Labour government’s promise to send 50 percent of British children to college is based upon a staggering failure of logic, which has not yet been exploded. It was, until a few years ago, possible to draw a direct line between the possession of a university degree, and a better paying job. This was not the product of a timeless ironclad equation, but because the default was not to go to university; to have a degree thus set one apart from the crowd. But if everyone has a degree, then nobody does. We are now caught in a spiral in which a master’s is the new degree and, soon, a Ph.D. will be the new master’s. Would that economics classes had given our children an understanding of the importance of adding value. You don’t pay your plumber more because he has a degree in physics.

In the West, we are hard at work establishing a culture that fetishizes education, and instills the belief that college — regardless of its content or application — will, and should, inexorably lead to a better job, or a better life, or even a better America. Worse, that one has a right to these things. In doing so, we have created a Potemkin aristocracy, one based upon the erroneous and tragic conceit that having letters after one’s name intrinsically confers excellence. We are happily encouraging our children to join its ranks, regardless of whether there is any evidence that to do so will be in their interest. This is supremely ironic, given that so many of America’s billionaires — i.e. those who pay for more educations and create more jobs than anyone else — are college dropouts. Indeed, both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates failed to finish college. Can we say with a straight face that this has adversely affected them, or America at large?

On Thursday, I met a guy down in Zuccotti Park. He speaks six languages, but he has nothing useful to say in any of them. He is the movement’s perfect spokesman.

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