I say this sort of thing sometimes.
College is a waste of time for a lot of people.
They just shouldn't go.
College isn't for everybody, and everybody isn't for college.
When I say that, I'm usually talking about students who aren't emotionally ready for college, either because they're not yet mature enough or they are too restless at the moment to settle down to four years of intellectual grinding.
Those kids should take some time after high school to work or travel or join the military or intently pursue a hobby. After a few years, most of them will discover that they are not just ready for school again, they are ready to excel at it.
But often when I say that college isn't for everybody I also mean that there are lots of college students who shouldn't be college students ever.
I don't mean that they are somehow intellectually or emotionally unfit for college. Many of the students I mean do very well in their classes. I mean that college isn't preparing them for a life that will make them happy.
Most courses of study, even the ones that are very close to being purely vocational training, are preparing students for a career that will keep them indoors and sedentary, for jobs that are intellectual but only in the most ordinary and hum-drum sense of the word and thinking is mostly a matter of following instructions or collecting and organizing data, for jobs that will require them to use their hands only for keyboarding, manipulating a mouse, and checking off items on lists.
What used to be called with good reason white collar jobs.
What are now usually self-flatteringly self-designated "professional" jobs.
The fact is that every college classroom has in it at least one but probably more kids who are not born to sit at desks and push paper around for their whole lives, no matter how well those jobs pay, no matter how actually creative and challenging those jobs can be, no matter how well-regarded and popularly applauded those jobs are.
They aren't born accountants, lawyers, college professors, marketing executives, scientists, or engineers.
They are born carpenters, mechanics, electricians, animal trainers, cowboys, forest rangers, tugboat captains, and train engineers.
I'm not being classist or elitist here. These students aren't products of their backgrounds. They are the apotheoses of their own temperaments.
There are plenty of sons and daughters of lawyers, doctors, and captains of industry who are born carpenters, spot welders, plumbers, and beauticians.
And I'm not suggesting these kids are in any way intellectually deficient. Those jobs take brains and skill and if they aren't smart and talented they won't succeed at them anymore than if they weren't smart and talented they'd succeed as lawyers and doctors and captains of industry. But besides that plenty of them do very well in school and go on to be successful lawyers and doctors and captains of industry.
What they don't go on to be are happy lawyers and doctors and captains of industry.
But our society is classist and elitist. We still have a skilled artisan class, but for the most part we don't think of it as a separate class. We tend to see it as part of the working class and few parents who belong to the "creative" and "professional" classes would be happy to see their children moving a rung or two down on the ladder of status. Few of their children, inculcated with their parents' classism and elitism, could see themselves taking on such jobs without also seeing themselves as failures in some way.
Doesn't matter that many of those jobs pay better than some high status white collar jobs (teaching, mainly, but also religious ministers, and some government jobs) and it doesn't matter that many of these very smart and talented kids would eventually go on to start and run their own businesses and so bring themselves back into the upper middle class fold.
It would take a very brave and secure kid to tell her white collar parents, "Mom, Dad, I've decided not to go to college. I'm joining the union."
Still, I think it would be better all around if more kids did.
Basically, then, when I say that college isn't for everybody, I mean that college won't make everybody happy.
But when the pseudonymous Professor X writes in this article in the newest Atlantic that college isn't for everybody, he---at least he refers to himself as a he; he might very well be a she, depending on how complete she/he has tried to make his/her authorial disguise---means that there are lot of people entering college who are wasting their time because they are just doomed to fail.
And he means that they are doomed to fail because they are unfit for college and probably never will be.
He does not, however, mean they are stupid.
I work at colleges of last resort. For many of my students, college was not a goal they spent years preparing for, but a place they landed in. Those I teach don’t come up in the debates about adolescent overachievers and cutthroat college admissions. Mine are the students whose applications show indifferent grades and have blank spaces where the extracurricular activities would go. They chose their college based not on the U.S. News & World Report rankings but on MapQuest; in their ideal academic geometry, college is located at a convenient spot between work and home. I can relate, for it was exactly this line of thinking that dictated where I sent my teaching résumé.
Some of their high-school transcripts are newly minted, others decades old. Many of my students have returned to college after some manner of life interregnum: a year or two of post-high-school dissolution, or a large swath of simple middle-class existence, 20 years of the demands of home and family. They work during the day and come to class in the evenings. I teach young men who must amass a certain number of credits before they can become police officers or state troopers, lower-echelon health-care workers who need credits to qualify for raises, and municipal employees who require college-level certification to advance at work...
Sending everyone under the sun to college is a noble initiative. Academia is all for it, naturally. Industry is all for it; some companies even help with tuition costs. Government is all for it; the truly needy have lots of opportunities for financial aid. The media applauds it—try to imagine someone speaking out against the idea. To oppose such a scheme of inclusion would be positively churlish. But one piece of the puzzle hasn’t been figured into the equation, to use the sort of phrase I encounter in the papers submitted by my English 101 students...
For I, who teach these low-level, must-pass, no-multiple-choice-test classes, am the one who ultimately delivers the news to those unfit for college: that they lack the most-basic skills and have no sense of the volume of work required; that they are in some cases barely literate; that they are so bereft of schemata, so dispossessed of contexts in which to place newly acquired knowledge, that every bit of information simply raises more questions. They are not ready for high school, some of them, much less for college.
I am the man who has to lower the hammer.
End of Part One. Today's assignment: Read Professor X's essay in the Atlantic, In the Basement of the Ivory Tower. Be prepared to discuss by identifying themes, key points of his argument, and the evidence he presents in support of his thesis. Do you agree or disagree with Professor X? What do you think should be done about the problem Professor X identifies? Do you think it is a problem? Do you think college is a waste of time for some people? Do you believe Professor X is a he? Use the comment space for your answers. Neatness counts.
I think the Atlantic has torn down its subscribers' only firewall. If you can't get to the article, though, drop me a note and I'll email it to you.
Cross-posted at newcritics.
Set aside the date! The Drum Major Institute's Annual Benefit will be held Tuesday, May 20 in New York at Cipriani on 23rd Street right across from Madison Square Park.. This year's honorees include City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, a founding member of Women of El Barrio, political organizer Steve Phillips, president and founder of PowerPAC.org, and David Simon, creator and producer of HBO's acclaimed series The Wire. Tom Watson has more details.