If you have any kind of a social media account, you probably witnessed this week’s viral video, “Go To College,” exhorting youth to pursue higher education rather than just hang out. Produced by website College Humor, which has collaborated with the Obama administration previously, and co-starring SNL actor Jay Pharoah, it makes a catchy tune. And it showcases the success the Obama administration, and the First Lady especially, enjoy using social media for social good.
I find myself torn. Anyone familiar with my background in college education will understand why I think getting your higher degree matters. A good liberal education makes people free, a truth understood since Greco-Roman times. But as one among millions of Americans finding his life options severely circumscribed by inability to pay college debt, I have severe qualms about pressing students into schooling for which they’re often unprepared. There must be a middle ground somewhere.
Ever since the GI Bill created an entire new generation of college-educated middle-class workers following World War II, higher education has undoubtedly been key to entering America’s comfy home-owning central echelons. Because of this, students, especially academically astute students who take standardized tests well, face monolithic pressure to attend college. Being inexperienced, youth remain often unaware of other options available. Thus, except among the poorest Americans, college becomes the supposed funnel to adult economic stability.
This is further compounded by the frequent lack of career guidance colleges provide outside vocational programs. All through high school, the top advice I received was: go to college. In college, my professors urged me into graduate school. In graduate school, my professors urged me into a Ph.D. program and eventual professoriate—during years when spending on college professors was bottoming out. I graduated with a degree, an outdated résumé-writing guide, and $30,000 of debt.
I cornered one professor and demanded guidance on how to pursue a career in my field. He admitted he didn’t know; he, and his colleagues, had been outside the non-academic job market so long, any job-seeking skills they’d once had were irretrievably outdated. Though my major programs (I doubled) both offered career planning classes, they taught only broad, sweeping maxims, from professors who’d spent years, sometimes decades, off the market. I quickly came to despair.
However. During my teaching years, I noticed something distinct and consistent. My best students, almost without exception, hadn’t started college directly from high school. They’d taken time off to pursue something fulfilling, meaningful, or remunerative. This may have involved travelling, getting a job, or starting a family. One particularly successful student had served two tours in Iraq and wrote movingly about PTSD. One spent a year studying evangelism in Scotland. One had been to prison.
Students who worked, traveled, or lived before college entered with important skills. They had better ideas what they wanted from higher education, giving them laser-keen focus on their ultimate final goals. And they were more self-directed, which made them better able to handle college learning. Freshly minted high school graduates were more accustomed to a teacher-centric, classroom oriented learning environment, and unprepared for the hours of autonomous, private study college demands. Many hit a wall.
When America introduced compulsory state-based schooling back in the Nineteenth Century, early backers like Catherine Beecher and Horace Mann needed ways to compel reluctant students into the classroom. One way they accomplished this was to create an undercaste of social rejects and malcontents, whom they nicknamed “dropouts.” We see these instruments of social control perpetuated today whenever anybody says the people who cook food, build roads, and stock shelves deserve “menial” pay for menial work.
Now our highly respected FLOTUS, backed by America’s well-funded media machine, insists online that every job besides literally watching paint dry and grass grow deserves, even requires, post-secondary schooling. But my classrooms were already flooded with students who didn’t want, and were unprepared for, higher ed. They simply didn’t see any other options, a fact with came across in their measurable outcomes. College literally isn’t for everyone. Creating even more pressure forecloses students’ available options.
Nearly a quarter-century ago, John Taylor Gatto wrote something that’s really stuck with me: that life without education is life only half-lived, but we mustn’t mistake education for schooling. Ramrodding students into academic environments for which they’re unsuited does them severe injustice. Why is college universally better than apprenticeship, on-the-job training, or national service? Why can’t youth postpone college until they’re ready? College shouldn’t be a jobs factory. Kids deserve better than more unwanted pressure.