Going to college is not mandatory: Dr. S’s guide on life choices in one simple blog post

There, I said it. If you don’t want to be in my class, I’d prefer you not be there. I am not a jailer. Nothing is mandatory. There are many paths, and many places to learn.

This news story is making the rounds, and ZOMG it totes proves that higher education is a totes ripoff, I totes tole ya…except why, exactly, we need a ranking system to explain to us that people who major in art, education, and the humanities at tiny second-tier schools are worse off is a bit beyond me. We know this. We’ve known this for years. We pay teachers shit salaries. Artists struggle. The humanities have been a luxury item for decades.

But, hey, uncovering the major shocking factoid that a degree in art from Clodhopper University doesn’t pay is super-big news. Save all that money (that you don’t have) and put the money in stocks. Because, you know, the people who wind up going to Clodhopper U had that money sitting around.”Shall I invest in stocks today, or go to community college? I need Slate to tell me.”)

There are any number of conditions under which a person shouldn’t go to college:

1) If you have to get into serious debt to do it and you are looking to college to pay your way out. I don’t know why everybody thinks it is news, or why the people who point it out think of themselves as special geniuses, but getting into massive debt for anything other than an extremely durable asset or a major increase in human capital is not likely to pay out. There are people in the world who can buy $350,000 cellos for fun even though they don’t play; there are people who can buy $350,000 cellos for whom it actually makes good professional sense to do so (professional cellists). For the rest of us, it would be financial idiocy. You wouldn’t buy a washer and dryer at 25 percent interest. You might at 2 percent. To figure that out, you do the math against the laundry mat. I wish higher education were free for everybody who had the talent, motivation, and interest. But it’s not, so do the math.

If you want to be in college because it’s fun to learn, you know what you want, and you can do it without getting into unrecoverable debt, or you don’t mind the debt, then that’s another thing entirely.

2) If you don’t want to go. I am not listening to any wah-wah about “My mom and dad are making me go.” Please. Get a spine. If you really, seriously have no idea what you want to do and you don’t want to continue your education, then ask them to help you by fronting your first month’s, last month’s and a deposit on an apartment of your own and then get out there and hustle if you think you’d rather do that. College will still be there if you think you want it later, and you might find you like doing something else enough to stick with it without going.

And parents, OMG, please don’t force your kids to go to college by refusing to help them get set up on their own. I am 100 percent behind saying “no” if the answer to not going to college alternative involves kids who think they are going to sponge off you indefinitely. But a person in college who doesn’t want to be there will find a dozen ways to not get anything out of being there, and in the mean time, you are writing tuition checks. So yeah, if little Bobby doesn’t want to do anything besides smoke pot and play video games, you have to realize there is really nobody at college who will force him to do anything besides smoke pot and pay video games. Do you want to pay tuition while he does that, or would you rather not?

I’m sick and tired of hearing about how “college isn’t worth it” when people send wee Bobby to college because he isn’t “ready” to live on his own and, thus, should go to college. That is insanity. The drug trade is alive and well on college campuses, binge drinking is everywhere, and nobody will force wee Bobby to grow up in college. Most colleges and universities are terrible, and exceedingly expensive, babysitters.

3) If a tech libertarian bazillionaire gives you $100,000 to start up your own company. By all means. Again, if it doesn’t work out, college will still be there if you blow through your $100K and fail. You can learn in many places.

4) If you can get the training you want on the job and you can get hired. Why not? College is really fun, but if you can apprentice with somebody and it’s something you want to do–again, college will be there later if you don’t like what you are doing. I repeat: you can learn in many places, and if you do not want to be college, then figure out it on your own. Again, you may find you like being apprenticed to a carpenter, electrician, or hairdresser. Every plumber who has come to my house seems to be genuinely happy in his or her work. That’s the idea. Making a decent living doing something you don’t mind getting up to do strikes me as close to heaven as anybody but the extremely fortunate get. You don’t know what you want until you try many things. And once you learn how to do something, you can, if you are entrepreneurial, start your own business.

I’m not the sort of person who thinks every university needs to survive to the end of the 21st century. I think there are enough people to support what I do. I believe in markets. If I find myself out of a job, I’ll have to do something else. No clue what. But I am going to barf if I hear any more about the “higher education bubble” or any more whining about “having to go to college.” You want to go to college, great. You don’t want to? Don’t. Lots of people do fine if they don’t; lots of people fail if they do–and vice versa. The general numbers about being better or worse off for going to college are general numbers and don’t tell you your future, it’s as simple as that. You could be the person who majors in music and who winds up starting a multi-million dollar label. Or the person who winds up teaching piano at an elementary school. One is more likely than the other, but still.

Phi Beta Kappa on education versus training

Phi Beta Kappa’s Arts and Sciences initiative has put out an infographic on education versus training. I’ve been looking about for the surveys and the methods so I could see what’s what, but I haven’t located anything yet. According to this survey, employers get it: they want smart people they can train themselves, people who think and write and with the resource to analyze and solve problems. There’s no apparent tradeoff between arts and science education, as scientists note that arts training helped them with their careers in science by ‘boosting innovation.’ Particularly telling is the 11 different jobs statistic, which has always been my shibboleth. So I teach you how to read a site map–bully for us–and how does that help you envision or move into jobs other than that? (That said, people are always learning and teaching: people learn being in the world, not just a classroom. But I hope a classroom is a place where you have a group of people ready to discuss what you are learning, which may or may not happen outside the classroom.)

Where is the drive to pursue training instead of education coming from? Perhaps it is something we have imagined. Or, perhaps, the complaints we get from industry come down to the fact that education is not sufficiently broad, nor are we teaching critical thought, writing, analysis or problem-solving.

Maria Popova on the The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

Go read it. Nothing is “useless”, except meanness. You have no idea what will be useful; you have no idea what will inspire, or enchant. Just do work, and support others doing work:

The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge:

“The real enemy is the man who tries to mold the human spirit so that it will not dare to spread its wings.”

(Via Brain Pickings)

and you will be surprised at the results if you are patient enough.

Is there room for both critical thinking and hope in today’s pedagogy?

Over at Catholic Moral Philosophy, Jessica Wrobeleski writes about her reactions to Pope Benedict’s World Day of Peace 2012, “Educating Young People in Justice and Peace.” As she notes, part of my Christmas vacay is usually spent worrying about spring classes, and this year was no exception. I have a very large class to teach, and it’s a class that I did not succeed with the last time I taught it.

The best way to think about the class is, I think, urban theory for beginners. There is nothing, nothing the average American student hates more than theory, unless it’s their theory instructor.

And the class is required.

So you have hide the theory under lots of distractions, like broccoli under Velveeta.

Wrobeleski hits some highlights from the message:

Education is “the most interesting and difficult adventure in life,” and consequently calls for responsibility and sacrifice on the part of both students and educators (2). Moreover, the Pope identifies the tension between youthful idealism and the apprehension of the next generation at the magnitude of problems in the world today, and he councils young people not to yield to discouragement in the face of difficulties or to abandon themselves to false solutions. If education in justice and peace is to bear fruit through action, it will require the courage and resilient hope that allows both young and old to “look at the world in its truth and not be overwhelmed by tribulation…

“Being not overwhelmed by tribulation” strikes me as a very difficult balance at this stage in our world. On the one hand, we have tremendous reason for hope: the changes that we see throughout the world, in the Middle East and Africa, appear to be a new variety of liberal democracy. On the other hand, our existing liberal democracies appear to be bogged down in ideology and extremism, ineffectual. Students are looking out at a terrible job market. Can I ethically say that there is a future in planning when the public sector appears to be crumbling?

I tend to approach the issues of planning very critically in my classes. My students in planning start out in the world with a large dose of belief in their own value as philosopher-kings. Yes, the world is destroyed, but that’s the fault of you old people who drive too much and eat meat and fail to ride bicycles. We shall fix it. They are ready followers of the New Urbanism’s promises: when we visionaries shape cities like a potter shapes clay on a the wheel, people will live right.

Much of my pedagogy in planning theory tries to get students to be critical of their idea of themselves as philosopher-kings–special agents with special knowledge who, given enough power, would fix the world–to understand the tensions in play and at balance in the democratic governance of urban life. It’s extremely frustrating, though, for students. It’s very hard, in the scope of a few weeks in planning theory, to convey the idea that, in the words of Gandhi: “Everything we do is futile, but we must do it anyway.”

Go too far in critical thinking, and students tune you out or become embittered: “I came here to learn how I could change the world and you’re telling me I can’t.” By pointing out the flaws and cracks of our ability to affect change, some students fall into believing that just because something is not perfect–or even deeply flawed—we shouldn’t do it.

Instead, I hope to foster humility–of fear and trembling, so to speak–in the proposal of social and environmental changes designed to solve social problems. No, I won’t sell you my high speed rail based on stopping climate change and the idea that it will cost you nothing–oh, unicorns from outer space and the federal government will pay for it. Instead: high speed rail will offer a pleasant way to travel between cities without driving. It works well elsewhere. If we all chip in about $75 to $100 a year for the next 25 years, we’ll be able to have it. What do you think?”

I find that the usual pedagogical answers to Wrobeleski’s notes here to be unsatisfying. There is the standard urbanist’s exhortation that you should “just get students out to experience the city.” It’s too facile. It’s easy to partake of a city’s places as a consumer. And many of these students live in Los Angeles, for crying out loud, and since they are undergraduates, they probably grew up here. That means getting out there with new eyes, which is what education is for.

I’m similarly dubious of expecting students to volunteer via service learning: when service is required in a class, it’s not really voluntary and it’s not really service (it’s obligation) and, just as it can lead to the prized anecdote of service learning teachers—i.e., students discovering their long-term calling in service—it can saddle already overburdened service organizations with clueless students who helicopter in and out for their own purposes. Moreover, not every student is themselves in a position where they can really give. In a class of 70 people, there’s a good likelihood that at least some of them will themselves be in a fragile place emotionally or financially, where they, themselves, need more than they can give.

Over the next week, I’ll be redesigning the class from beginning to end, given the fiasco it was last time. We’ll see what strategies I come up with.