How did we get into this mess?

I have a weakness for “how did we get into this mess?” stories. How did health care become an oppressive, insanely expensive gauntlet—and In such a short time? How is it that the majority of the world finds itself working for the weekend? How did the world economy end up utterly dependent on a fragile and finite resource? How did we become consumers? How did we decide that selfishness was the best organizing principle for economic exchange? How did we end up viewing efficiency as one of the greatest goods? My secret history page was in large part intended as a record of the best writings I’ve run across that ask and try to answer such questions. (It needs a lot of work, and I’ll try to get to it in the weeks ahead.)

Right now I’m reading In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, by Professor X. It’s one of the many $3.99 (shipping included) books I’ve order from abebooks.com on a whim—there are a lot of used and remaindered books books out there which people will sell you for next to nothing. I remembered reading the 2008 Atlantic Magazine article which gave birth to it, made a when became an entire book, but then forgot about it until I ran across a mention recently. I’m always interested in learning more about the current education mess and its sources, so I thought it would be a good read. It is, although I don’t recommend it over the article for any but those of us who Just Can’t Get Enough on this particular topic. The book is a mess, but a genial one—Professor X turned his 15 minutes of article-spawned fame and turned it into a chance to write and publish a book, so good for him. What he has to say on the topic isn’t book-sized, so it ends up being a jumbled collection of marginally related thoughts he’s obviously wanted to get into print. But he’s a good writer and a good observer, so the book makes for excellent light reading.

The most important thing Professor X has to say about the college education mess comes right at the beginning. Describing the first session of a new class, he writes:

In this simple opening-night meet-and-greet session we come smak against the crux of college life in what I think of as the basement of the ivory tower. College enrollment has expandedl wildly over the last thirty years, and more than ever before includes many students who are unprepared for the rigorous demands of higher education. Many of my students have no business being there, and a great many will not graduate. As they freely admit, they are not in my classes because they want to be. The colleges require that all students, no matter what their majors or career objectives, pass English 101 (Introduction to College Writing) and English 102 (Introduction to College Literature).

OK, there’s the mess. How did we get into it? He continues:

Some of my students don’t even want to be in college in the first place, but what choice do they have? For a licensed practical nurse to become a registered nurse requires an associate’s degree (awarded after approximately two years in college) in applied science—68 college credits divided equally between nursing and general education. To become a state trooper requires two years of college, and please note that in some states military and/or law enforcement experience does not substitute for the required degree.

We are vaguely aware that this is a problem, but if we think about it at all we chalk it up to undesirable results at the edges of a system that largely gets it right. After all, people need to be trained and qualified, and this is the system that has developed to do that, right? But I think Professor X manages to get at the source of the problem, and it’s not where we usually place the blame:

A quick look a the classifieds reveals the large number of jobs that either require or discreetly suggest that the applicant have at least some college under his or her belt. A tabloid newspaper is looking for someone to sell legal advertising. Qualifications: high school diploma or equivalent, some college preferred. A wholesaler needs to hire an accounts receivable clerk. Qualifications include a familiarity with Microsoft Office and the ability to assemble billing statements and send them out on a monthly basis, to call past-due accounts, and to process payments; a two-year college accounting degree is also required. Retail giantess Ann Taylor prefers that her district managers have a bachelor’s degree. Interested in testing water? High school desired, college preferred.

College preferred. What sort of job applicant in the midst of a recession disappoints the supervisor from the start by not satisfying his or her preference?

It gets better:

We are used to getting what we want in the United States, and we have a vague feeling that the world would run more smoothly, more efficiently, more professionally if every worker had some college under his or her belt. But who stops to think of the cost of this worthy aspiration to the taxpayers, and to the weary souls who are being sent back to school, often at great expense, for no real reason. There is a sense that our bank tellers should be college educated, and our medical billing techs, our county tax clerks, our child welfare agents, our court officers and sheriffs and federal marshals. We want the police officer who stops the car with the broken taillight to have a nodding acquaintance with great literature. We want that officer to have read King Lear, to understand Glouster’s literal blindness as a signpost towards Lear’s figurative blindness, and to be aware that the Fool and Cordelia, the two great truthtellers, never appear onstage together, and wer probably doubled by one actor. I suppose that would be nice. Perhaps having read Invisible Man or A Raisin in the Sun will render a police officer less likely to indulge in racial profiling. I wonder, will an acquaintance with Steinbeck make the highway patrolman more sympathetic to the plight of the poor, so that he will at least understand the lives of those who simply cannot get it together to get their taillights repaired? Will it benefit the correctional officer to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X? The health care worker Arrowsmith? Should the case manager at Child Protective Services read Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”?

I love how Professor X’s illustrations plunge into the absurd, because they aren’t exaggerations—he is charged with teaching exactly those things to exactly those people. The source of the absurdity is our vague feeling. And I think the source of that vague feeling is something we’d rather not face up to, namely we think that the world would run more smoothly, more efficiently, more professionally if every worker were just like us, the sort of people who have read those things and benefited (or at least we like to think so) from the broader perspective those writings gave us. Too bad we never counted the social cost of indulging in this fantasy.

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One thought on “How did we get into this mess?

  1. Universities have been turned into diploma factories taught by low paid adjunct faculty. I wouldn’t blame the students for that. I remember my friends teaching creative writing loosing their classes and forced to teach “business writing.” Baby Boomers really dropped the ball.

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