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Education for everyone

I noticed a few pieces that came down the education news pipeline in the last few days decrying the state of our college education system. OK, so we apparently have beaten down our K-12 system enough, and we’re going on to bigger fish. Not only are our kids getting a crappy education leading up to their high school diploma, but they’re just carrying the tradition forward.

Well, I beg to look a little bit closer at what we’re talking about.

As has been very well documented, there was a huge change in American higher education post World War II. Before that, few men had gone to college, and even fewer women. But returning vets suddenly got college offered to them, and it was enticing.

On top of the GI Bill that got tons of vets into college who before would have gone into a trade or their fathers’ business, we had feminism. Suddenly women, who had tasted the independent life when they worked during the War, wanted to go to college, too.

The percentage of our population going to college suddenly skyrocketed. As time went on, politicians started talking about how getting a college education was necessary. Fast forward to present day, and the goal is to get all kids to college.

This seems like a really great and noble goal, but it’s terribly misguided. The huge increase in people who are going to college has not been accompanied by a similar change in our culture. Probably the same number — maybe even fewer — of the kids going into college today as 60 years ago actually want to go to college. The rest — most of the new recruits — are simply going because they have to. Where before they had to get a high school diploma to prove that they were ready to go out into the world, now it’s a Bachelor’s degree.

When I was teaching at Cal State Hayward (now Cal State East Bay), I lived in San Francisco. One day a neighbor invited me to a party. Why minor incidents sear their way into our brains whereas we can forget major important events, I can’t explain. But I remember this red-haired, pimply young gentleman I talked to at that party. He told me he was going to San Francisco State. Trying to make small talk (not my forte), I said, “Oh, what are you studying?”

He positively snarled at me in response. “I’m not at school now. I don’t want to talk about school!”

Clearly, I thought, this wouldn’t be one of my preferred students.

But he was representative of a lot of my students. They were at college because they’d been told they’d get a better job. They largely had no idea why they were at college otherwise, and generally had no interest in their classes. Their ambitions, such as they were, were often terribly mismatched to their abilities. They seemed like rats trying to figure out their way through a maze.

“Gee, maybe if I do the speech therapist major I’ll get out the other end and find a party with good beer.”

I want to emphasize that this doesn’t describe all of my students. But I think it’s way more representative of the general student body than all of the stand-out students that I could rave about. Many of the kids there just simply didn’t care about education. They would have been happier and more productive doing almost anything else.

And so what I can’t understand is why anyone is wasting their time trying to figure out why our colleges are turning out less and less educated people. Our colleges are turning out exactly the people that we’re asking them to turn out: If we say “everyone must go to college,” then college will be yet another holding pen that bored students must wait in until they get to the other side.

This is what education for everyone looks like. There are alternatives, but apparently we’re not supposed to talk about that…

[See my follow-up to this piece, Alternatives to “college for everyone”.]

Posted in Culture, Education.


3 Responses

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  1. Jennifer G. says

    I generally love reading Suki’s blog, was very disappointed by this last post. It is the UNDERFUNDING of public education that has left so many high school students incapable of reading and writing well. California used to be 3rd in the nation in terms of per-capita support for education in the 1970s; it is now 49th in the nation due to systematic cuts to education. Govenor Brown’s current proposed cuts to the UC system will bring that world-class institution to its knees by taking it BACK to 1997 funding levels. If people feel that the public education system is failing, there is a very clear reason why. Most of the college students I know love the opportunity to study about the world around them, have their world expanded and increase their chances of developing skills they will use for a lifetime. Discouraging young people from wanting more out of life, or assuming most college students should be satisfied with less seems like a very short-sighted vision for our youth.

    • Suki says

      Hi Jennifer, I totally agree with you and have written about that many times before! Funding is of course key to keeping our educational system running smoothly for everyone. However, research shows over and over that you can’t force learning into someone who isn’t interested in learning. By making a Bachelor’s degree something everyone must get in order to get a job (something that our politicians are advocating these days), we’re not doing our educators any favors. I am working on a follow-up piece to explain this more deeply. I see it as totally separate from the funding issue. Personally, it’s clear to me that educating people is a complex thing, and no one change will solve the “problem” that we have. Really, we have many problems, only one of which is that our public university system is being gutted by funding cuts. Thanks for writing.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Alternatives to “college for everyone” – Avant Parenting linked to this post on May 25, 2011

    […] to “college for everyone” Last week I wrote about how I thought the question of why our colleges are turning out less-educated people was pretty self-evident: When we create a society in which everyone has to go to college to get a […]



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