A surfeit of smartses

So, yesterday I complained about a silly advertisement targeting people who want a post-secondary education.  As ridiculous as the ad (and the product) is, there’s no denying that it targets a need, or at least a concern, of young people these days.

When I was in high school, my Physics teacher once noted that he thought university was being pushed far too hard on us.  There are a lot of other options  for a life and career that don’t involve getting a traditional university education, he said, vocational programs for example.  And, he noted wryly, someone has to clean the toilets.

It sounded a little less smug and elitist coming from a teacher with a working-class background, but I have to say that I agree with him.  The problem, as I see it, isn’t that university education is bad.  On the contrary, it’s wonderful, and I think it overall does an amazing job turning kids into well-rounded, socially-capable adults.  Rather, the problem is that university degree is routinely pushed as a necessary credential for anyone who wants any hope of getting a job and leading a happy successful life.  But, if everyone feels that way, and everyone goes to university, then the whole process provides exactly zero assistance with getting a job, except in the sense that if you didn’t do it you’d be less qualified than everyone else.  As the saying goes, if everyone is special then no one is.

Apparently, there was a time when a high-school education meant that you could get a decent job.  I can’t even imagine that now, but, apparently, there was a time.  I can certainly imagine when a Bachelor’s degree was significant and meaningful.  But, only because people today, especially older people, seem to blindly assume that this is still true. However, at some point the baseline shifted.  Now, a high-school education is sub-par.  The Associate’s degree has appeared as a new rock-bottom educational standard, catering to those desperate to avoid having only a high-school degree.  Bachelor’s degrees once “ooh!” are now “meh”; everyone and their brother has one, and many local community colleges have started awarding them in an effort to keep up with the demand for an acceptable job credential.  So, now the baseline for a successful career is a Bachelor’s degree — not because you necessarily learn valuable or useful skills, but because everyone else has one.  And, let’s not even get started on graduate degrees.  Remember when a PhD was an amazing achievement, impressive to all and relatively rare?  I don’t either, but I bet it was nice.  That even PhD graduates from top schools sometimes need to “upgrade” with a post-doc position suggests strongly that the impact of education at all levels has been meaningfully watered down by its ubiquity.

Again, I think university education is great.  It’s fun, it teaches you cool things, and (perhaps most importantly) it gives you valuable time to figure out who you are and what you want to do.  But, that’s not how we sell it to people.  Instead, we tell them that they have to go to university so they can get a job.  If you don’t, it’s cleaning toilets for you.  A lot of people go to university who don’t like it and won’t get anything out of it, and then graduate with a degree that provides no useful skills and has no meaningful value except for keeping you competitive with all the other people who went to university for the same reason.

What is the value of education for the sake of credentialing, if all it does is force everyone to spend a lot of time and money acquiring a credential that makes them exactly even with everyone else who did the same?  People still struggle to get a job, because in terms of job competitiveness having the same degree as everyone else is the same as everyone having no degree at all, only now people are twice as desperate because they have student loans to pay back.

The proof that all this revolves around some sort of credentialing arms-race is that people with actual skills are still doing just fine, regardless of education.  Plumbers and electricians make really good money — they have skills and certifications that are completely outside the university education system, and they get jobs.  Credentials that capture actual skills and abilities are worthwhile; it’s just the empty credential of an “I need this to get a job” university degree that has little value.

I’d suggest that the current race for education in western countries isn’t working.  There aren’t enough “educated” jobs for all these educated people.  Many university graduates take a job that makes no use of their degree. or leave the country to work in a nation where education still matters, or just apply for graduate school in the hope that one more degree will put them on top of the pile.  The model of success through superior education isn’t working, because it’s not a superior education if everyone else has one too.

So, here’s a thought.  Why not encourage kids to go to university only if they actually want to learn what’s being taught there?  And, if they don’t know what they want, perhaps they should focus on learning a useful skill.  A guy with a one-year electrician’s credential is probably going to earn more than I will with my fancy university degree (and, rightly so — he actually has a use to society), so if it’s really all about getting a good job, why not encourage kids towards a career path that won’t put them in constant competition with everyone else?

And, the counter-argument is not, “I won’t let my kids clean toilets for a living.”  The sad fact is that they probably couldn’t even if they wanted to — western countries import all their restroom-sanitising personnel.  We’ve outsourced the crap jobs to people who will smile while we exploit their desperation.  But, we can’t all be middle-managers.  There aren’t enough good jobs for us all to be rich, and we’re all too educated to be poor; the middle class has disappeared and we gave the lower class away thinking that we were too good for it.  Now, there are just a lot of people who don’t fit well anywhere.

Maybe things will be better after they complete their Master’s degrees?

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