Higher Ed

I’m on the record as calling out higher education as overrated — a position that’s starting to get some traction in mainstream press!  This piece in the New York Times drew a lot of eyeballs, but even more insightful is this Economist article.  The NYT piece takes aim at law schools; the story is foolishly framed by the travails of one particular character, who went to a fourth-tier school on massive loans (covering not only his tuition but also international travel and a swanky condo) and appears to have given no thought to his financial future whatsoever.  Given how many young lawyers are desperate for work in the current employment climate, it’s a shame the effort wasn’t made to find a better representative of Doing Everything Right And Getting Screwed Over Anyway (when I was considering law school, I encountered the alarming statistic that 20% of Harvard’s class of 2009 graduated jobless — a figure that in better terms stood solidly at zero).  The emphasis of the Economist article, by contrast, is on PhDs, which in many fields add very little benefit beyond a master’s degree.

I come from a family that fetishizes education; both my parents are teachers, my mother has one master’s degree, my father has two master’s degrees, and my brother holds a doctorate (and now works in academia).  That same attitude seems to have taken hold throughout this recession, as education and re-training is held as the only path towards a brighter and more secure future.  Unfortunately, as the above pieces demonstrate, this is a patently false assertion; learning is always a good thing, but education is a rigid system distorted by institutional incentives which often costs students tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars for no discernible result.  It’s all well and good to tell people to go back to school, after all, but education does not create jobs when it ends (unless you are in creative writing, which has been roundly criticized as an “MFA ponzi scheme”).  Just as privileged twentysomethings often go to graduate school to put off “real life”, sending a nation back to school only puts off the real, structural change that is needed to create jobs, reduce inequality, and bring people out of poverty.

There are definitely reasons to pursue higher education, but we have come to see it as some kind of cure-all, when the reality is, as always, much more complex.  Casting a critical eye on the institutions which extract an exorbitant cost in both time and money, holding out as reward the (frequently empty) promise of employment, security, and upward mobility — this is not cynical, it is necessary.

(Aside: while writing this post, I was interrupted by a call from my brother, who was apologizing for his recent silence.  He’s in the thick of job talks and interviews, moving from postdoc to professor, and the competition right now — particularly as schools, their budgets hit hard by the recession, are sluggish to hire — is steep.  In a neat bit of synchronicity we basically talked through this entire post.  Even people on the inside of academia agree with it!) 

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