Education is indeed a tool: education is a cudgel. Education is used by liberals and conservatives alike to blame individuals for failing to get ahead in a system stacked against them. The idea that education is a ladder out of poverty and into a higher social class is a valuable tool for maintaining the status quo, mis-directing our energies and resources, reinforcing the status of the already-successful, retro-actively ratifying as rational the random luck of birth.
With the increasing efficiency of everything, we’re even grinding away the rough edges of education, as if to smooth away any accidental value to the spirit that might linger on from a less professional time. Education is the myth about ourselves that will not die: from the right, if only the unfortunate would concentrate more of their time on self-improvement, they could get ahead, from the left, if only we got more people into schools, they would be able to rise. The myth is not the myth of free-will, but that the current order is more-or-less just.
We can see the desperate wish to retroactively align education to success in the frequent honorary degree. Of course it is a hope to rub some of the success and fame of whatever individual is being honored back on the institution, to raise its prestige and in turn to raise funds, but it also is a sort of contagious magic, where the academic hood traps that success, which likely had nothing whatsoever to do with education, into education’s corner. We have stacked great expectations onto the shoulders of learning, but while the story sure seems true, we should, like Dickens’s Mr. Jaggers advises, “Take nothing on its looks, take everything on evidence.”
The foundation of our current mania for education is the receding but still live memory of the post-war boom, the tumbling of hundreds of thousands of G.I.’s into college on the G.I. Bill, and the rapid, glowing success of America in this time into the ascendant world power. Born poor? Go to college, work hard, get a good job. Hate your job? Go back to school, learn a new skill, get a good job. Homeless? Learn to code. And everyone has someone in their past who seemed to have gone to school and attained some kind of relative success. I mean, I went to college. I loved it. Now I have a good job. Likely something similar is true for you.
The evidence, though, tells a different story. Poor students who go to college are far more likely to remain poor than rich kids who don’t go to college are likely to stop being rich, and whites who don’t even finish high school have a higher median wealth than blacks and latinos who go to college. In fact there’s even a chance that the going to college will cast someone out of the middle class into poverty. Yes the unemployment rate is lower for college graduates, but that assumes just having a job is better excepting all other considerations. There’s no coherent link between college attendance and social mobility or decreased inequality, just a whole lot of hand-waving and the idea that it must be true.
Thorstein Veblen, father of institutional economics and one of the founders of the New School, born to Norwegian immigrants on a Wisconsin farm in 1857, coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption” to explain why the so-called “leisure-class” habitually spent more money on things than they were worth as a way to socially communicate their riches. He believed that in a society dominated by businessmen such inefficiencies are endemic, and the inevitable quest for short-term profits and social jockeying hurt society and industry which was otherwise staffed by competent engineers.
Veblen had a lot to say about the intrusion of businessmen into academics; their drive to measure learning against yardsticks comprehensible to the board of directors and yearly reports; their drive to install a regime of conspicuous consumption by the erection of costly new buildings, and purchase of machines, and sports teams; the increased bureaucratizing of higher education. Useful education is not a widget, and can’t be mass produced, and even if it could, it demands the efficiency of an engineer and the work of science, not of businessmen.
With the tech-revolution, you might think that the engineers have finally won, but it’s no surprise that three of our society’s paragons of success in tech are hardly genius engineers, and all of them are college dropouts, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg, and grew up comparatively wealthy.
Gates and Zuck are actively involved in education “charities” that are forcing the individual blame view, while instituting a corporate mania for measuring, all while generating the kind of vast business waste that follows every enterprise of middlemen and profiteers. Meanwhile Jobs, et al, spent years colluding to artificially lower labor costs and fought to bring in more international employees not because of a skills gap but to exploit the near indentured servitude nature of the H-1B visa.
The advent of new technologies, in our society, doesn’t reduce inequality. It does the exact opposite, makes inequality worse. We blame the poor and the laggards slow to adopt for not taking up a new technology and taking full advantage, and we reward the rich who can afford to spend the time and money with more riches, and then throw the cloak of superior merit on them.
Colleges are responding to the complaint that getting jobs is hard by throwing up new career counseling programs, building shiny buildings and making corporate partnerships. They are retooling their liberal arts programs to teach skills useful for business, the kind of skills any sensible person can learn on their own, or be trained on the job.
Truth is, most technical skills will be relearned on the job anyway. The truth is, companies will still hire and promote someone who is already more-rich, more-white, and more-male than any equally qualified applicant. Education will never be a panacea, or even close, but by further decimating what’s left of the academics, colleges are only impoverishing society more.
In Great Expectations, the poor young boy Pip helps a convict in the churchyard, and also serves the whims of the insane rich Miss Havisham. When he’s told he has “great expectations” for the future, and a mystery benefactor, he and most others naturally assume its the latter, and she, maliciously, leads him on.
My first encounter with the story is when I read it as a graphic novel, first, back when I read a lot of comic books. Visually, it owed a lot to David Lean’s film, a physical manifestation of the critic David Thompson’s judgment that Dickens was an artist, and Lean merely an illustrator.
Of course, there are some illustrations that almost transcend: the boy Pip in the churchyard lifted up unto the gravestone of his parents by the convict Magwitch; young Estella, played with beautiful cruelty by Jean Simmons, tormenting and enchanting Pip; the choking ruin of Miss Havisham, knee-deep in cobwebs, and then the white-hot fire and Pip trying to beat it off her with the half-torn tablecloth of her moldering wedding-feast.
The price of credulity in the face of a likely story is some amount of misery and a misdirection of one’s energies. The price of right-understanding is a life without illusion, filled with toil and some disappointment, but, as Pip found out, the reward is freedom.
Benjamin Harnett (@benharnett) is a senior digital-infrastructure engineer at The New York Times, and publishes the newsletter, “Don’t Read Me” (http://www.tinyletter.com/benjaminharnett). In 2005, he co-founded the fashion brand Hayden-Harnett. His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in The Brooklyn Quarterly, Wag’s Revue, and the Columbia Review.