Thursday, January 23, 2014

Thank God I wasn’t college material

Matt Walsh writes:

I remember when I first learned that I was destined to be a failure. When you first read one of your blog posts?  Sorry, sorry, couldn't resist...

I think it was ninth grade, or maybe tenth, and I was sitting in afterschool detention. I’d been sentenced to hard time for being late to class, even though I had a valid excuse. See, I was only late because I hated school with a burning passion. I dreaded every class, every assignment, every test, every worksheet, every mound of busywork, every shallow and forced interaction with peers I couldn’t relate to or connect with or understand; every moment, every second, every part, every inch of every aspect of my public educational experience. I hated it. I hated all of it. I was suffocating. You weren't fond of using your brain or trying to understand others? So that's where it all started.  Sorry, sorry, sorry.

It had been ten years of public school up to that point and it wasn’t getting better. It never would, and I knew it. I was able to hang on for a long time, managing adequate grades, even an ‘A’ here and there. I was “passing,” at the very least. But in high school that changed. I started failing and failing miserably. We’d take tests, I’d try my hardest, but often I’d still get zero answers correct. ZERO. Fifty questions — all wrong. It was humiliating. Eventually I earned a reputation. I was the kid who “didn’t care” and “didn’t assert himself.” I decided to go with that image — false though it was – because I’d rather be seen as the smart slacker than exposed as the moron who actually tried and still failed.

So there I was in detention. Stupid me. Lazy me. Disappointing me. The teacher assigned to guard duty tried to rope me into a conversation about “my future.” She asked me about my goals and what I wanted to do with my life. I knew I had no talents or abilities — I’d learned at least that much through ten years of school — but I thought about the one subject that actually came naturally to me: writing. I couldn’t pass a test about the rules of grammar or the parts of speech, or the logical construction of arguments but I could write. I didn’t know HOW to write, but I could do it. Other kids, even the smart kids, struggled to express themselves in written form. I didn’t. It was the only thing I could do. The ONLY thing.

I told her that I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be or what I wanted to do with my life, but maybe I could be a writer. She asked me what sort of writer. I told her I didn’t know.

That’s when she dropped the bombshell: “Well, that sounds like an amazing goal, Matt. Get those grades up and go to college for a degree in creative writing!”


I have to go to college to do the one thing I’m kind of halfway good at doing? I have to finish high school and then go through FOUR MORE YEARS OF THIS? Impossible. I’m not college material. I’m not even high school material.

And I have to get a DEGREE in CREATIVITY? Wait, WHAT? Your creativity comes from your own mind and your own heart — you can’t learn how to be creative. Except that creativity hinges on your command of existing cultural productions.  If I can write things, and people want to read the things that I write, shouldn’t I be able to market that ability, regardless of my college experience?

I guess not. People go to college. It’s what people do. Why do they go? Because they need to. Why do they need to? Because there are so many jobs that are only open to people with college degrees. Because it’s what people do. Why? Because they need to. And so on.

I was distraught. I figured I’d better get used to wearing a name tag and working a cash register.

I don’t think I ever mentioned my writing goal to anyone again.

That was about 13 years ago. I never got a writing degree, or any other type of degree. I never went to college. Now the quality of your blog is starting to make sense to me. Now I’m the single wage earner supporting a family of four — by writing.

This is my story. There are millions just like it. Sadly, some of these tales follow a slightly different path. Many times, that kid who’s being choked to death by “formal education” will eventually get suckered into going to college. He’ll go, not because he needs to be there, nor because it’s the best thing for him, but just because. In college you might have learned about gender-neutral pronoun usage. Because because, and that’s all.

So he’ll amass a gigantic debt, miss out on four or five years that could be spent honing his specific skillset, and end up exactly where he could have been, and would have been, without college. Only now he’s 28 thousand dollars in the hole and half a decade behind the curve.  True for a plumber or a musician, perhaps, but a very significant number of jobs require a college degree, and people with a college degree earn almost twice as much as those without one.

Something has to change. Listen to me on this one. Something HAS to change. This can’t continue. It is not a sustainable model. There are millions of kids with no assets, no plans, and no purpose, taking out enormous loans to purchase a piece of paper they’ll likely never use. It can’t go on this way. Most of this is true.

While student loan debt, already over a trillion dollars, continues to set new records every year, so too do college presidential salaries. They essentially dupe gullible young adults into purchasing 90 thousand dollar cars that will sit in the garage and never be driven, and they make out like bandits. Yes, many college presidents get paid an absurd amount of money. But it only accounts for a small fraction of each student's tuition. It is only a symptom, not a cause. Moreover, you are asserting that college graduates do not benefit in any tangible way from their time in college, and that simply isn't true. For example, see above stats about earnings.

I hear plenty about the corrupt hucksters on Wall Street, why aren’t we talking about the wealthy con artists in academia who turn absurd profits by convincing broke kids to bankrupt themselves? Oh come on. Do you seriously think this is all a plot of the billionaire university employees?

I have some news for you: most people in academia don't make all that much money. The number of adjunct professors (people who are underpaid and often don't receive benefits) has risen sharply and is getting closer to matching the number of tenure-track jobs. And tenure-track professors usually don't make all that much, especially for the number of hours they have to work per day.

There are, in fact, a number of reasons why tution is rising. Number one is competition - your beloved invisible hand of the free market. Colleges want to stay up in the rankings and to attract new students - both of which require enormous expenditures on new facilities. (Students just seem to like the state-of-the-art rec centers and higher-cost food services.)  People running colleges and universities are not con artists - they are just trying to keep up with everyone else. Now, I agree, this must stop. It is unsustainable. But there is a whole system at work here.

Furthermore, you have to look at the people who directly benefit from student debt. There are a lot of people outside academia involved in the student debt business. And then there are credit card companies and retailers who specifically target college students, who will spend their loan money on all sorts of crap. A lot of people are preying on college students, and the students themselves are to blame as well.

Obviously it ought to go without saying that some people do need college: doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc. Nobody disputes that. But the rest of us must radically rethink our attitudes towards “higher education.”

Too many people are choosing more expensive schools, when lower-cost, lower-prestige schools would suffice. Also, I do agree that some people benefit from not attending college. I have advised a number of people not to attend graduate school for similar reasons. If you have a good job with a bachelors, don't jeopardize things. (Of course, one time my advice turned out to be very wrong.)

Having much experience with higher education, however, I do believe it is beneficial for most people, even when it does not directly impart the knowledge and skills for a specific career. I have taught college freshmen. I have also seen the work of college freshmen taught by other people I know at other universities. While I do believe public schools do their jobs, I also think it is true that the vast majority of students are not equipped for the workplace when they graduate high school. High school is designed more as college prep than preparation for the workplace.

There are 2 key areas in which students are deficient when they graduate from high school. Number one is writing. Many students can't write with any finesse when they start college. (Maybe that is partly the fault of high school education.) Even for those who are stylistically adequate, most cannot lay out a logical argument effectively and do not understand what constitutes valid evidence. In fact, Matt Walsh exhibits these deficiencies on a daily basis. Hence, the reason for this blog. Maybe it is possible to learn these skills outside of college, but it definitely requires guidance of some sort, as well as regular exposure to high quality academic writing. It is much less likely that a person will be an effective writer if they do not attend college. (Matt Walsh is lucky in that he only has to write to an audience of a similar level of education.)

The second area has to do with one's understanding of the world and one's ability to evaluate sources of information. Despite the presence of some groupthink and intra-departmental homogeneity in academia, when one samples courses across disciplines, as liberal arts degrees generally require, one will encounter different ways of organizing human experience and understanding the world. Different areas of higher education have quite different perspectives. Colleges and universities also offer excellent access to the arts, studies abroad, and interactions with peers from different geographic regions and walks of life. I had no interest in theater when I started college, but my roommate was a theater major and all of the plays were free, so that opened up a new world to me.

I have personally experienced in my own life and personally witnessed in others' lives a totally transformed understanding of the world as a result of the knowledge and new experiences acquired in college. When I think back to how limited my perspective was as a high school senior, I laugh, and cringe.

Is it possible for the same thing to happen if one learns outside of college? Maybe. But the research available to students is often not accessible to the general public. There is a big difference between the books in public libraries and university libraries. Books written for public audiences are generally not representative of the fields from which they emerge (there is lots of concern about this in academia) and tend to reinforce commonly-held perspectives rather than challenge them.

Finally - and this gets to the other point - to be able to learn on your own, you need to know how to evaluate sources of information. With the internet, we are totally bombarded with information. If you are just choosing things willy-nilly on your own, you have no idea how to place arguments in theoretical and historical context. You will probably not know the reputation of particular authors or the criticisms of their work. You will not be familiar with the broader principles that have shaped the array of theoretical positions in a discipline. You will likely not understand the material implications of particular points of view.

Being able to evaluate sources of information is actually a very, very difficult skill that college educators spend a great deal of time teaching to their students.

Total student debt has gone up by 275 percent in the last decade. How far will it climb, how many more kids will be thrown to the wolves, before we change direction? Since I was born, college tuition rates have gone up by 500 percent. FIVE HUNDRED PERCENT. Why do we send guys like Bernie Madoff to prison while the academic elite get away with gouging an entire generation to death? Well, let's see. Bernie Madoff was jailed because he broke the law - he took people's money and LIED about investing it. He just took it. Despite what you think, colleges and universities are actually doing things with the money they receive.

This is madness. And there’s only one way to stop it: don’t go to college.

Don’t send your kids to college.

If they aren’t actively pursuing a career that fundamentally requires a college degree, don’t encourage them to go.

We set up an artificial construct in college you would learn the actual meaning of the word 'construct' whereby degrees were suddenly “needed” for things like business, sales, and even writing. This house of cards is beginning to tumble, as employers are realizing that, shockingly, they need people who can actually DO the job. They need talent — not paperwork. New college graduates are left unemployed because they often expect too much and offer too little. No. Trust me. New college grads don't expect much at all. They are unemployed because the economy sucks. And nowadays employers are looking for people with masters degrees to do simple administrative work.

And, all along, whatever society says, and whatever direction the schools push our kids, one fact has always remained: if you want to be successful at something, you must do it and do it well. That’s what I’ll tell my kids when they’re old enough. That’s what I’d like to tell all of my fellow young people. It’s not enough anymore, and I’m not sure it ever was enough, to simply follow the well-traveled roads, accumulate your grades and your degrees and then emerge into the world, waiting for wealth and prosperity to rain down upon you from heaven.  Once again, most of us educated people are just hoping to support ourselves.

You have to put some skin in the game. You have to find your niche and master it. You have to be the best. Conquer it, whatever it is that you want to do. Be better than everyone. Be a visionary while everybody else is checking the handbook. Take risks while everybody else stays cozy and comfortable. Be good at something. Then, once you’re good, become great.

It’s that simple. What world do you live in? It sounds nice. Was it ever more complicated?

Yes, I suppose, but only because we made it so.

Now is the time to unmake it. A lot of kids aren’t college material. And they need to know what a wonderful thing that can be.


An additional note:

Judging from some of the comments, I think this needs to be said: I love learning. I learn new things every day. I read ferociously. Yet you appear incapable of evaluating sources. I absorb information on a wide range of subjects. Yet you appear incapable of critically analyzing that information. One can criticize college without criticizing the concept or act of learning. If you’ve been to college and you think that you can only learn inside the walls of a college, then I pity you. What have you been doing since you graduated? Not learning anything, I guess. I have been learning so much because I acquired the tools I need to learn on my own... in college. Someone below made a snarky comment about how I must think that you can be a writer without reading older writers.

Yes, sir, because you have to go to college in order to pick up a book and read it.

Come on. Obviously I’m not anti-learning. In fact, I think formal education can stifle learning in some cases, for some people. True. We don’t all learn the same way. True. I, for one, learned more in my first three years out of school than I ever learned in school. That’s not the school’s fault, that’s just how I operate. And I’m not alone. That’s the point. That was the point of this whole thing. Thanks for reading

1 comment:

  1. It never would, and I knew it. I was able to hang on for a long time, managing adequate grades, even an ‘A’ here and there.Uni-source 2000