An Unrelenting Focus on Education Mistakes Knowledge for Power

As the proud owner of a new graduate degree one of the most shocking things I learned when I began work with John Holt is that college degrees and credentials, overall, are incredibly overrated. John pointed me to the works of Prof. Ivar Berg at Columbia (Education and Jobs: The Great Training Robbery), Ivan Illich (Deschooling Society), and Joel Spring (Education and the Rise of the Corporate State) and they changed the way I viewed higher education. In those days (1981), fixing elementary and high schools was the issue, but higher education was just fine—except to Holt and those like him who wrote about the clay feet of college, too. These books were written in the 1970s and all made a strong impression on me; the research and thought each author brings to their subject made it clear to me that school may not be the best place to learn what you need in order to find and meaningful, fulfilling work.

It’s been a challenge criticizing the value of college over the past decades—the institution appears immune to critique—especially as it jettisoned its purported mission to spread truth and knowledge among its graduates in favor of credentialing workers. When every major American media outlet echoes the sentiment that going to college is the best, if not only, way for people to make more money in today’s economy it is nearly impossible for countertrends and arguments to emerge. For instance, when the first “jobless recovery” occurred in the U.S. economy in 1990s, Illich and his colleagues noted that this is strong evidence that education is not connected as deeply to the job market and economy as education’s boosters claim. Now that we’ve experienced three jobless recoveries, the wisdom of going in debt to earn degrees in our youth to earn more money as adults is ever more doubtful.

However, I’m pleased and surprised to report that two mainstream economists are now confirming that increasing the number of college graduates is not going to save the American economy. Prof. Larry Summer’s, an influential White House economic advisor, recently “dismissed as ‘whistling past the graveyard’ the widely accepted view that improving education and job training is the most effective way to reduce joblessness.”

Nonetheless, resistance to this idea exists. Those comfortable with the existing structure of degrees and employment claim that schools are not producing good workers, so we need to import more qualified workers and make our schools better to create the employees that corporate America wants. This is also a popular media mantra, and we’re cramming STEM skills (science, technology, engineering, and math) into schools as a result. But the reality we face as students and workers is vastly different. Economist Paul Krugman, writing in the New York Times, put it this way:

. . . there’s no evidence that a skills gap is holding back employment. After all, if businesses were desperate for workers with certain skills, they would presumably be offering premium wages to attract such workers. So where are these fortunate professions? You can find some examples here and there. Interestingly, some of the biggest recent wage gains are for skilled manual labor — sewing machine operators, boilermakers — as some manufacturing production moves back to America. But the notion that highly skilled workers are generally in demand is just false.

Of course, now that the economy is bouncing back a bit Wall Street and colleges have more reason to stay pat and keep chanting the “get more education to have a better life” mantra. Let me share a personal story that might help break the spell of that mantra for you. Just as the financial crisis of 2008 to 2009 hit we were looking at college admissions for one of our daughters, who wanted to be a nurse. The private college our daughter favored would easily have cost over $60,000 in student loans to attend. During a meeting with the school admission’s officer to discuss finances, we were cheerily told that job prospects for nurses were outstanding and that she’d have no problem repaying her higher education loans right out of school with her future earnings. Fortunately, our daughter decided not to go for a four-year degree, and she avoided getting trapped in the flat earnings situation that plagues so many college graduates today: the twin financial burdens of compounding college debt and insufficient wages and salaries. Krugram adds some context and economic research to my personal anecdote:

Finally, while the education/inequality story may once have seemed plausible, it hasn’t tracked reality for a long time. “The wages of the highest-skilled and highest-paid individuals have continued to increase steadily,” the Hamilton Project says. Actually, the inflation-adjusted earnings of highly educated Americans have gone nowhere since the late 1990s.

Krugman suggests raising the minimum wage, increasing workers’ rights, and “levying higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and invest[ing] the proceeds in programs that help working families,” as ways to achieve more power for working people, not more schooling. Now that some mainstream opinion makers are changing their minds about the value and function of college degrees, perhaps we can get some perspective on how to fix things. We shouldn’t only be trying to reform four-year colleges and twelve-year compulsory schooling—though those with interests in those institutions continue to insist we must all work within their system to make them better—we should use this moment to create new forms, scopes, and sequences for learning that involve parents, businesses, and communities in the lives of children, not just professional educators.

My hope is that as our economy continues to leave so many behind and citizens turn to education to better themselves only to discover their degrees serve as a drag, not a boost, to their earnings, then alternatives to school will be considered more seriously. Health and welfare are equally, if not more, important than education for one’s survival, but we’ve put education on a much higher pedestal. It is time for us to bring that pedestal down to its proper size and acknowledge that a person’s health and welfare matter deeply to how we learn and grow in the world.