So, I hear Donald Trump is now promising free college. Don’t bother explaining that that wasn’t really what he said, or why it is the best idea possible. I’m not interested in the Donald. What I’m interested in is this idea of free college.
Free education was an idea of the liberals, back when liberals stood for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They had the idea — which was amiably passed on to me by my parents and grandparents — that you could educate anyone into … well… what they would have called a person of worth.
To an extent they were right. Remember the people who came up with this idea were at the very cusp of the industrial revolution. The first jobs in that were dirty, ceaseless and deadly, so about on a par with agricultural jobs (the idea that agricultural jobs were paradisaical is an invention of the romantics, all of whom had never seen a shovel and if they did wouldn’t know which end to use.) The difference is they weren’t learned by watching and starting to participate as soon as you could walk, which allowed a break up of large familial structure, of the bonds of tradition on any given individual, and allowed individuals more freedom of action. To put it another way, just because your dad, your grandad, your great grandad and everyone else you could trace were farmers, it didn’t mean you couldn’t go to the big city and be a carder or a machinist. Which freed you also to marry whomever you wanted from a much larger pool of candidates and, yes, if you so wished, to go to hell your own way with beer and blue ruin.
On the whole the industrial revolution represented freedom and the toppling of oppressive societal structures (yes, there was something to be said for those structures, to wit that you were less likely to go to hell with beer and blue ruin, because the people around you would interfere. This is what the romantics noticed, and what turned their heads to mush longing for the good old days. They confused “freedom to do it” with “necessity to do it” and concluded industrial production and capitalism were bad for humanity. Their heirs, the greens, suffer from the same illusions. They think there’s something soul-satisfying about agricultural work, close to the land, etc. Because the only part of it they’ve experienced is hobby gardening, they’ll continue thinking so. Also, they don’t look at what’s happening in places like India and Chine as they, too, undergo their industrial revolution. People are voting with their feet.)
But after the initial impetus, machines grew more refined. It has been observed the first thing industrialization teaches a country is to keep time. People become conscious of punctuality. You can follow how important punctuality is in a culture by running an inverse proportion of how recently a country was industrialized.
Then other things happen. You start to need people who can memorize schedules and sequences of actions. The cities themselves lead to a need for people who can read instructions and information. (Mostly pre-radio and pre-tv, for western countries.)
This means for the first time in human history, reading writing and ciphering become a real asset, and not just “prestige and for the rich.” Those who read, write and calculate have a demonstrably better life, as they become supervisors.
At this stage, it is easy to confuse “better life” with “reading, writing and arithmetic.” It is also easy to conflate such bourgeois virtues with the ability to read morally improving works.
This is how free public education gains impetus, with the best intentions in the world.
But that was about 200 years ago, most places, and what we’ve learned in between is this:
- It’s easier to indoctrinate people than to teach them, and for regulation and governing purposes, indoctrinating is more effective at control than teaching.
- The average person only needs to know so much. For instance, through 9th grade I got up to pre-calc, which I’ve used … never in my subsequent life. (Though trig comes in handy, now and then.)
- There is no practical correlation between education and morality. Some of the earliest educated classes in the world were responsible for most of the massacres of the 20th century.
This hasn’t stopped the public drive for more and more free education (or education) for various reasons. a) it’s easier to indoctrinate people more the longer they stay in school, so various governing bodies love the idea b) there seems to be a correlation, at least in the cases we hear of (many more we don’t hear) between more advanced education and a better life. Even where that doesn’t apply, there’s the recent memory of a time when it was so. c) there is an entire apparatus in place to push us into believing that more education equals a “betterment” of the individual in the moral sense. Mostly because those in power consider “good morals” to agree with them, and look up there at point a.
It’s gotten to the point now, where we have people with phds working as baristas, and the fact our educational costs have gone straight up (having two kids who wanted stem degrees there was no option for “apprentice” for them, or as older son put it “if you cut people without being a doctor, they arrest you.” I’m acutely aware of this. In my time it was difficult but possible to put yourself through school in a timely fashion by having a job. Now you can still do it, if you’re willing to take ten or fifteen years to get through a bachelor’s.) Also, in most fields of study, a bachelor’s now means as much as a high school diploma meant in previous years. I thought this was merely due to glut and inflation of credentials (and it is due to that too, I think, but) some years ago I fell into this pattern where various friends with college age kids asked me to tutor their kids in foreign languages and/or literature. And I found out that these kids’ were less proficient than the high school kids I’d tutored twenty years before. I hadn’t realized it because I discovered when older son was in 3rd grade that they weren’t teaching him … well… anything… and started teaching him on the side, when he was home from school while using the school merely as a babysitting system so I could write. I thought, at the time, it was because we were in a tiny town, with a backwater school, but some of the people I worked with ten years ago went to PRIVATE schools with an excellent reputation, so I don’t believe that’s the case.
Now, when your bachelor’s degree doesn’t get you much of anything and you start life in deep debt (which in turn means a population crash among many, many other bad things) I understand why people think “free college” will solve their issues, and why politicians on the make promise it.
Let me tell you, ladies and gents: it won’t be worth the paper it’s printed on.
I remember being very shocked there was no free college in the US. When I first came here in 12th grade, I fully intended to go through free college in Portugal. And I did. So it might seem a little hypocritical of me to ding it…
Except that back then (things have changed, and how) the same percentage of people went through free college in the US as in Portugal (yes, I know what I said.) The same type of people too.
When I chose to go back to Portugal — mostly dad’s letters begging me to come back — I turned down a full ride scholarship to college, that two of my high school teachers had been at pains to arrange for me. (Sorry, guys, if you read this.) My husband was accepted to an ivy league peripheral college, with a full ride. (He didn’t finish there by reasons of clinical depression for reasons that weren’t related to school and which, at the time, the schools weren’t alert are likely to strike people in a certain IQ. Ah well. Another leg of the pants of time.)
These pure-merit scholarships by and large no longer exist. Now you must have merit AND be an interesting minority. But that’s something else and a discussion for another time.
Meanwhile, while here I realized that the American college system was very different from the Portuguese one, too. The Portuguese system is rooted in medieval traditions, which is great if you want to attend a non-magical Hogwarts for grown ups (complete with robes) but sucks goat teat if what you want to do is get a job in the real world.
This wasn’t as obvious to most of my family, the family afflictions being medicine and engineering, which have eminently practical applications.
But I had issues with transposing digits, which I couldn’t even talk about since it wasn’t a recognized disorder and I thought I was going crazy or was stupid. (Ironically both my kids inherited the issue and I learned tricks to overcome it while teaching them. I’m still a menace with phone numbers and addresses, particularly when I’m tired.) And the idea of cutting dead people, let alone living ones that I intended to keep alive, made me queasy. I gave psychology a try by auditing while my transfer from the US was being dragged very slowly through bureaucracy, and dear BOB, it was all meringue, no cake. Particularly since at the time they were in the throes of behaviorism.
There were things I genuinely WANTED to do: agricultural engineering, nixed because at the time it only made sense if you had family lands to work on; and archeology, nixed after I figured out it didn’t pay much and what it paid necessitated grants from the government.
Which took me to the “hardest” of the humanities. I.e. if you take language and literature, it at least teaches you SOMETHING real. The language part. Within that, I picked the hardest disciplines, English and German (because furthest from Portuguese.) This was the path to teaching in school — as were most other humanities and even pure science degrees — which I had no intention of doing, so I started taking about a million (okay four to five) courses on the side in other languages, at consulates, embassies and institutes. I paid for these courses by working, and I was glad to do it, because it meant I could learn languages that, had I stayed in Portugal, would have made me a sought-after translator.
I’m often asked why for the love of heaven I chose to learn Swedish, for instance. Well, because textile factories were then (might still be) the main industry in the North of Portugal. And because my dad worked for one, I KNEW that the machines were imported from Sweden, and that the most legible/accurate assembly instructions were in Swedish.
My idea was to become a free lance interpreter/translator, and what I’d realized up front is I couldn’t do it with my free education alone. Our curriculum hadn’t changed from the nineteenth century where its main aim was to create young ladies who could speak various languages and be an ornament to society with erudite talk, or teach other young ladies to do the same. I had more training in translation in high school, whose curriculum had been modernized, than in college. Yes, the diplomatic corps mined our school (particularly the best students) for its ranks, but really they preferred those people who for whatever reason knew more than two languages, and knew them better than they were taught in college. Hence, you know, jobs abroad, and paying for courses on the side, and well… everything else. (Though knowing myself I was never interested in the diplomatic corps.)
However, look above, unless pursuing some thing that has a clear definition and clear goals “free education” is worth what you pay for it. Not being consumer driven, it tends to become fossilized in whatever worked back when some do-gooder founded it. Or to become subverted for the purposes of government.
BUT, you’ll say, so does paid education. Look at what is happening with people taking degrees in puppetry and basket weaving.
Well… there will always be a number of those when value is put on “a diploma” more than on what you can do with it, and when a piece of paper is your credential to entry in an “educated class” who might not be able to do anything, and therefore holds to the credential as a positional good with more fervor than ever.
Also “paid” is …. debatable, as the government is funneling money to schools via the students. What I mean is there is no effort made by anyone along the line on establishing whether all that “education” is good for anything. What I mean is, as in the insurance system, where the third-party payer for health care doesn’t care if the patient lives or dies, the scam of passing money from government to professors doesn’t care if the patsies in the middle get anything useful out of the deal.
Hence the fact that even in the hard sciences students are required to take courses in gender studies and micro-aggression sensitivity, keeping those otherwise utterly useless departments alive. Also a reason there are no more Western history courses or Latin in most schools. Because the consumer has less and less say in it every year.
It wasn’t that way thirty years ago, when most courses still taught SOMETHING you could use in the employment world, but that is neither here nor there.
Also, in America, the paper — as in Europe — has come to mean more than knowing the stuff. And this is stupid as knowing the stuff is easier in the US than in Europe. Not that we’re smarter, but we have lending libraries, massive bookstores and even before the internet, ways to order out of print books. What this means is that self-education doesn’t have the issues it has in Europe.
I figured this out when I was writing the Shakespeare books. This was almost 20 years ago, and I have since forgotten what the issue was, but I had a question about Shakespeare biography and called the library, who called the local college, who got me in touch with a professor, who got me in touch with another professor at a much better university. As I explained my problem and asked my question, the gentleman asked me other questions. In the end instead of answering me he laughed and said I might now be (after 15 years of reading everything I could find) the foremost expert on Shakespeare biography in the US. Which amused him.
Of course I didn’t have a degree, so I couldn’t teach in college (or anywhere else.)
Which brings us to what they’re promising when they promise free college. Look, guys nonsense aside, there’s a reason courses in line-fishing and popular music lyrics exist.
Countries that have free education MIGHT by and large have lost all touch with the economic realities, but they do still have a fairly demanding course of studies (even if it’s for being a well educated nineteenth century lady.) Because they only have free education for the top 5% or so of students, if that much.
The mass of students — you guys went through school, right — not only can’t, but don’t want to engage in rigorous courses of study. They want the credential, because they’ve been told it does all sorts of nifty things (as far as mine is concerned, though I never tried, I’m told I could make a nifty paper plane out of it, though the lacquer seals might make it hard to fly.) BUT they don’t have any particular intellectual passion, and aren’t even interested in any work that requires extensive intellectual training.
So if you institute free college here, what you’ll have is a) more degrees in ant-watching. b) more time to teach students what they actually need to know. We’re now at the point where college graduates are less literate than my classmates at the village school were, and know far less useful stuff about the real world. (By fourth grade, we learned about useful plants, how to buy and sell at a profit, and the geography of the region, among other things.)
I look forward to the time when you’ll need a doctorate before you can be sure the person knows how to read, write and count to twenty without taking off their shoes. Because a system designed to accommodate those who have no interest in learning necessarily descends to the lowest common denominator.
Of course, it doesn’t matter if it’s free, right? I mean, who does it hurt?
It diverts a substantial portion of the GDP to an idle and otherwise useless class as well as giving politicians more chance to indoctrinate the young. It creates a false sense of entitlement in said young. It dulls even the brightest minds as “education” becomes more and more a matter of dotting the is and crossing the ts with no thought involved.
Most importantly though, it costs the young their most productive and mentally alert years. It means careers — and marriages, and kids — are postponed until the complexities of Marxist analysis of line fishing are mastered to perfection.
In the end, it means we’re poorer, older and dumber.
You get what you pay for. And what the politicians give you for free is always bought by you. At a higher price than it’s worth.