College... Skip It?

My latest "Jakesonian" theory is that as particular institutions get more politicized, the quality of their output drops. Read academia, journalism, labor (manifested in union market share). As my uncle often says, back in the day it was nary impossible to tell the political leanings of the average college professor. Today, not so much.

So now we have 100 college professors producing a document that advertises their ignorance in subjects economic. Should we be surprised? Probably not. Should we be embarrassed for them? Certainly.

Megan McArdle feels pretty bad about it all. Can't say I blame her. After all, she lives in a world where "school" means something. At her recent Aspen smarty pants meeting, I'm sure everyone was running about playing the college name game. You know the one. "Yes, when I was in 'school' we often jogged across the Mass Avenue Bridge to see if we could catch the last couple of innings of a Sox game..." The admiring listener is left to guess MIT or Harvard. Fun game.

My father was right. He told me when I was seventeen that college was a waste of time. And it was. I was a second semester senior before I was as challenged by college as I was during my junior year at a competitive New England boarding school.

Given a do over, I'd probably skip the whole college "experience". Think of the opportunity costs associated with four years of incomeless existence (let alone the silly tuition prices), the brain cells lost from four years of college hell raising, and the experience forgone sporting about the world with a military unit (actually doing things productive).

It's not as if you can't read, write, learn, interact, find sylibi, and/or research everything from the comfort of your hooch in the jungle (practically)!

I hire a lot of middle managers in my work life. A resume with military experience trumps a BA in "Business" every time. If academia doesn't price itself out of existence the next couple of generations, the politicization of its faculty may.


Terry Cowgill

10:17 AM

Yah, in retrospect, I would concur with much of what you say. I wound up being a writer and I really learned how to write when we were in boarding school together, not when I was an undergraduate.

Another possible angle to this is deferral after high school. Many high school grads (myself very much included) were simply not mature enough at age 17 or 18 to move into an environment with few restrictions. That means you get a lot less out of the experience and waste a lot of your parents money, as I most certainly did.

Graduate school was another matter. I was clearly ready for the challenge and got a lot out of it.


2:24 PM

New England boarding school? Why, Jake, who would have thunk it! Born with a silver spoon in your mouth!!

For those of us who tromped our way through public school (though not such a bad one), college was an eye-opening, mind-expanding (and only occasionally brain-cell damaging) experience. The love of learning, fascination with many subjects from history to art to science, critical thinking and research skills -- all I attribute in large part to college.

As for politics, you'd be quite surprised, Jake. The college I work at, which is fairly typical of a selective liberal arts school, is strikingly apolitical, more so among the students than among the faculty. There is nary a peep of activism, and I have spoken to as many students who, if they are or were voting, would lean elephant as would lean donkey.

I've spent many hours puzzling over that. Part of it, I think, does have to do with soaring tuition costs, which results in a more upper class student body. Since these are sons and daughters of bankers, investors, and the like, they come from families where the Republican status quo is just fine and dandy.

Students today are also far more productive (and pressured) than they were in my time. There is nothing wasted about college for these students -- they are amazing, many of them double-majoring, doing graduate-style research projects, volunteering on the side, etc. With all that, there is little or no time for political activity, I guess.

As for faculty and academic politicization, it's true that faculty are more let's say opinionated in their work, though I believe many try to keep their classrooms open-ended. Research is usually grounded in careful methodology, however. What's more, I don't see the ripples of faculty politicization, if it's a true phenomenon (or any truer than it's ever been) going much beyond academia itself to have much of an effect on the real world. Recent high-profile firings and tenure-denials have also iced faculty dissent and are making professors more and more cautious.

In spite of what I've said about my own college experience, I agree with Terry to some extent -- I did waste a good deal of it (though don't we all look back and think that?) and sometimes wish I could do it again now. I also had a far different experience in graduate school as a mature adult, and got more out of it.


11:32 AM

Mr. Grimblebee:

In the spirit of graceful communications on the internet, I thank you for your input. If future comments are offered in such a manner, I welcome your input.

As for the silver spoon, that may apply, depending on what it means. I tend to draw distinctions between class and wealth (the reason, I suppose, I find upper middle class liberals so tedious). People who use the term "silver spoon" usually don't appreciate the difference, so there is probably no point in further comment. Suffice it to say that my family has a long and storied history in North America. (I write under a "nom de plume", BTW).

As for politics on campus, at one point you say that today's campuses are relatively apolitical, yet at another point the professors are (politically) "opinionated". Seems to be a bit of a conflict there. Perhaps my experiences are colored by graduate school in the 1980s and 90's, but I found the campuses to be anything but apolitical. Frankly, I found a good number of professors to be quite out of hand in their repression of competing opinion, and not beyond punishing students who didn't parrot a left leaning world view.

As for the students, they may be busy, but I contend that they aren't learning much. There are many examples. The most explicit is an internet based civics test that ranked the results of a 100 question exam by college. The best performing school was Harvard, with an average score of 67. From there it ranged down to scores in the thirties. (Bard wasn't represented).

Now I'm no genius and I was a below average student in my day. But I got a 99. So you tell me how well these kids are learning.


12:22 PM

Mr. Jake:

As to the fate of my comments, see my reply on my blog. I happen to think "civility" is overrated.

Is there a distinction between class and wealth? I suppose if you mean that sometimes in this country people with little means at the start can accumulate wealth, that's true, but I would submit that class still accounts for wealth >80% of the time, and even those "nouveaux riches" adopt the habits of the upper, ruling classes.

I realized there was a contradiction in what I wrote, after I'd already hit the "submit" button. I would say this: students are definitely less politically active than they were in the past. Faculty are less politically active than they were in the past, exclusive of what goes on in the classroom or not.

As for that piece: I'm not in the classroom much, but from what I observe and hear, faculty do not impose doctrinaire limitations on their students, regardless of whether their own political and/or academic viewpoints. To the extent that their viewpoints are left-leaning, I think that's a consequence of thinking, researching, and understanding. But even that I hesitate to say, because many researchers at major institutions of learning serve the right.

Choosing an internet-based civics test as your standard of learning is an awfully narrow perspective, and wholly informed by what you think is important. I beg to differ.