Inflation By Degrees

It was only a life in being ago that a bachelors degree in liberal arts was the key to the American Dream. It was a rigorous course of study, deeply steeped in classical literature and philosophy, that provided a student with the best thought of the past to be applied to the world they would soon enter.

It was about thinking. It was also an opportunity, not an entitlement, and it was commonplace for the dean to give an opening talk to students: Look to your left. Look to your right. One of you will not be here to graduate. Failure was not merely an option, but a guarantee. Some of you would not be up to the task. Some would fail. Don’t let it be you.

In an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune, which (for no good reason) would now be called a “guest essay” if it was in the New York Times, Victor Davis Hanson bemoans the shift of the American university.

Nothing is stranger than the contemporary American university.

Not long ago, Americans used to idolize their universities. Indeed, in science, math, engineering, medicine and business, many of these meritocratic departments and schools remain among the top-ranked in the world.

We still do. We fetishize college degrees, which is why it’s become an entitlement for every young person, regardless of ability or intelligence, as if the magic of a piece of paper will take someone with no prospects and turn them into marketable commodity who will be handed a corner office, a seat on a corporate board, a big salary and a guest essay at the Times. Replace my examples with whatever examples you prefer. The point is that people are simultaneously crying that American Exceptionalism is a lie, a myth, but everyone should go to college at enormous expense to them and revenue to the college, but which will be forgiven because it’s their right to knowingly take on debt and then have it miraculously removed so they can fly to their entitled heights.

But it’s not about the education. It’s about the degree. The paper. The line on the resume. The ability to be the first in a family to be a college graduate. There’s a connection missing here, because if it means so little to get a bachelors degree today, then why get one?

But it is gone now.

Instead, imagine a place where the certification of educational excellence, the Bachelor of Arts degree, is no guarantee that a graduate can speak, write or communicate coherently or think inductively.

When I twitted this, some young people were incredulous. A bachelor’s degree was never a “certification of educational excellence.” A bachelor of arts degree is worthless. They ironically prove Hanson’s point, demonstrating that they have no knowledge or understanding of history and passionately believe two things. First, that nothing that happened more than eight second ago actually happened, and second, that they are educated and still incapable of critical thinking. They believe they are brilliant critical thinkers. They are not.

In 1980, 20.9% of males and 13.6% of females possessed a college degree. By 2019, it was 35.4% and 36.6% respectively. I’m reliably informed by academic friends that grades are greatly inflated and that it takes serious effort to flunk out these days. Showing up is generally all that’s required. There are disciplines in which degrees are granted that didn’t exist years ago in studies that might be of parochial intellectual interest but no practical utility. All of this might be forgivable if these students emerged from a rigorous course of study that put out graduates who could “speak, write or communicate coherently or think inductively.”

After running through a litany of pet peeves with universities, some of which you may or may not agree with, or might express differently, Hanson reaches his conclusion.

But once they began to charge exorbitantly, educate poorly, politick continuously, indebt millions of people and act hypocritically, universities turned off Americans.

Have universities “turned off Americans”? While the pandemic has forced some marginal colleges to close their doors, we’re still awash in higher ed and even mediocre universities are awash in applicants desperate to pay absurd tuition for their slice of the dream that, their professors vehemently argue, no longer exists. You may personally think otherwise, but that doesn’t change the fact that young people, and their parents, are battling for their shot at putting a butt in a seat at the most prestigious university they can find.

For what? A degree that confers neither benefit nor privilege, other than the potential to gain admission to a graduate program where they will really get the education they need to climb that ladder out of the basement to success?

Is the bachelor’s degree of so little value, so little worth, that it should be handed out like very expensive candy to unworthy children, with the prize being that they get to spend more money going to the next university for a graduate degree?

There was a strong demand that college degrees be democratized, be available to the wealthy and poor, black and white, male and female, qualified and unqualified, smart and not-so-smart. Of course, this list presents the problem, we no longer accept the premise that anyone is too unsmart or incapable of getting a college diploma, which is the stepping stone to success even though success is no longer possible. In order to overcome our privileged vision of college, we were constrained to either limit access to those capable of surviving a rigorous education or water down the education so it took extreme effort to fail, like not bothering to show up or crack a book. Ever.

Today, entry-level jobs often require a master’s degree, if not a Ph.D. Humanities majors are being shut down for lack of student interest. The only occupation available to many grad majors is teaching future grad majors how to string together jargon into dissertations. Hanson may be right about many of the things that are terribly wrong with American education, but we still love it, fetishize it, and, I suspect, will be forced to pay for it for the benefit of those who desperately want it while simultaneously hating us for having diminished the value of their bachelor of arts degree.

12 thoughts on “Inflation By Degrees

  1. DanJ1

    I did a campus tour of Syracuse University with my daughter almost 5 years ago. We sat in a large hall and the Dean of Whatever came on the stage and said a lot of things to the potential future students and their soon to be much poorer parents. The one thing that struck me and probably passed over most of the East Coast Eliteroti in attendance was, and I paraphrase, that the undergraduate degree is not important. That the first four years is about a transition from living with your parents and moving on to adulthood. That you should not worry about what job you will have. That is what graduate school is for. So, for the low low price of $250,000 Syracuse will prepare you for adulthood.

    That tidbit rolled off my daughter because she was laser focused on getting a media degree and business degree. She liked the world of media having already immersed herself in media production as a high schooler but she wants to be the one writing the checks not the one waiting for a check (or a job). When she met with the media school counselor, she asked about getting a dual degree. The response, and I’m quoting this time, “Oh no. We don’t want our students working that hard.”

    Mr. Hanson is 100% correct. Our colleges are about indoctrination, not about producing producers. Luckily, all of my daughters were in college to learn life skills that are now contributing to society.

  2. L. Phillips

    I can only speak for this cranky old grandfather who regales his six grandchildren with tales of how worthless his BA is (political science) and sings the praises of trade schools and any high school or community college level courses that deal directly with personal and small business finance.

    “Every person, rich or poor, wants working toilets, lights that turn on, food and clothing made, grown, delivered, or sold, and garbage hauled. Work at something like that both with vigor and intelligence, scrape a few bucks and a few like-minded friends who know how to work together and start your own business. Avoid debt if at all possible.”

    That’s the speech they all get. I have a cabal of similarly aged friends giving pretty much the same advice to their progeny. Judging by Hanson’s essay we are not alone.

    1. SHG Post author

      There’s much to be said in favor of the trades, but if you need surgery, a plumber won’t help much. Society has many roles that need filling, and many who got a degree that won’t fill any role.

      1. Guitardave

        When the current system fails to produce surgeons we’ll still need the plumbers to hook up the gas lines at the crematorium.
        Gotta keep those priorities in order, right?

    1. SHG Post author

      Even now when I speak to undergrads, they still believe they will be the exception and their life will be fabulous.

      1. cthulhu

        They let you speak to undergrads?! I’m envisioning a live action version of Bambi Meets Godzilla

          1. JRP

            That reminds me of the old (to me..) book freakanomics and its discussion of the drug game and professional sports having close to the same chances of success. And yet tons of young people bet everything on bad odds rather than work hard at a vo tech.

            My wife (who has a Masters) already doesnt want our kids to go to university. Based on the amount I used my BA vs. the experience I gained working in a high school vo-tech I have to agree. The rub is changing all those “entry requirements” that prioritize one over the other. Hard to change gatekeepers when the children of the elite benefit from one but not the other.

  3. Perry James

    In college there was one other Caucasian in my honors organic chemistry class- he was an Israeli.
    Most of my friends in the Molecular Biology program were Asian or Middle Eastern, we were all peers.

    Now we’re degrading gifted programs and dumbing down curricula. My buddies and I don’t give a damn. You can’t fight city hall, you can only protect your own.

  4. John Maran

    I will only speak from my experience. I’m high school educated and 10 years work experience in warehousing and manufacturing. I’ve been bottom rung my whole life, and everywhere I’ve been, to get to that second rung, I’d have to at least have a bachelor’s degree. In what, it doesn’t matter, but to climb the ladder, I need that piece of paper. I work hard and I’m fairly intelligent, but that’s not what’s necessary. The only people even in middle management without degrees are the dinosaurs. The younger, newer supervisors and whatnot are often college educated and off the street. They haven’t worked a single day doing what we do and it shows, but they have a degree and the powers that be have deemed that be what’s necessary for that next step. I’ve often been told that I should go to college. That it’s never too late. Four years of my life and thousands of dollars of debt all so I can be in charge of six to twelve people and a middling pay raise. Maybe a shared office. I don’t know. That piece of paper is over-priced and over-valued

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