The Midlife Scholarship
College is wasted on the young
September 24, 1987
Another of my hey-kids-get-off-my-lawn rants against college-going. As was too often the case, my critique was sound, as was my proposed remedy, but I suspect that many readers assumed I was joking about the midlife scholarship when I was dead serious.
I appreciate that my advice to kids to avoid was pat, even then. I was able to make a modest career without college, but that owed to the peculiarities of my profession; today, a bright would-be journalist can't get a job as a janitor at a newspaper, much less a writer, without a degree. I still insist that if the profession need degreed apprentices, fine, but the professions ought to pay for them instead of the taxpayers. That would take the air out of credentialism.
Back in April, an eighteen-year-old freshman at Illinois State University fell out of a window of her seventeenth-floor dorm room. She lived—she landed on a tree—although she did break several important bones. The young woman explained that she fell when the window screen she was leaning on gave way.
Presumably her life flashed before her eyes on her way down. Press accounts did not reveal whether her review included the memory of someone explaining to her that window screens are built to repel flies and not freshmen. One would have hoped that even a business major like her, who are light for their size, having a hollow spot where beats the heart in a liberal arts major, would have realized that not every system in the U.S. was designed to support her.
The state of higher education in the U.S. has received a certain attention lately, especially in the literate press. Reading about underclassmen who cannot place the Civil War in the correct decade is, I find, like sucking on a sore tooth: The pain is exquisite for a while, but mercifully the nerve eventually goes dead. But the sky-diving MBA candidate in Normal led me to ask even more basic questions about a system which dresses even idiots in caps and gowns and calls that education.
Like most reforms, the various proposals to rescue our colleges and universities miss the point. The fundamental problem confronting the campus is not curricula or teacher salaries or antiquated lab equipment. The problem is really two related problems. One, there are many too many students on it; two, those students are much too young.
The first problem is the plainest. Advanced teaching in a residential setting is not like manufacturing lawn mowers. Economies of scale do not generally apply. The demand for college education has driven institutions to build new buildings at hideously high prices, expand unionized support staff, and staff and equip whole new programs—not to teach students but to tempt them from going to other schools.
And that demand, in turn, has its roots in the failure of our sclerotic economy to provide jobs above the level of the fast-food counter and below that of the executive suite. McUniversity is a demographic phenomenon, not a democratic one; democracy requires that everybody have access to advanced schooling, not that everybody have advanced schooling.
We send kids to college by the million, in short, because they are young and useless, not because they are unlettered. Since the first of the baby boomers began leaving high school in the mid-1960s, college has become the ritual last hurrah of adolescence in which the student's social instruction has gradually taken precedence over her intellectual instruction. Indeed, while youth is not wasted on the young—they can have it—college (in its formal aspects) almost always is. Those things which purport to enrich their private lives will be ill taught; those which promise to advance their public careers will be irrelevant or outdated by the time they must put them to use.
Post-Kennedy college grads themselves know that the only kids who learn anything at college are bright, curious kids from cultured families—kids who really don't need college. What they did get at college was not education but a certain kind of experience, mainly at staying up late. This is widely believed to be a necessary part of growing up. The value of college in this process is not that it is college, of course, but that it is not home. (The army traditionally serves the same function for the working class.) In any event, the appeal of going to college lies precisely in not having to grow up. Your bills are paid for you, often your food is fixed too. You are catered to by movie bookers, health clinics, and T-shirts shops, and social rules are vastly more lenient than those of the middle-class subdivision. Campuses are in fact day-care centers for post-pubescents.
Kids suspect what their grandparents remember, which is that growing up begins when you leave school. Some cultures made certain accommodations to the volatility of the young adult (the provincial French, for example) but growing up still took place within the community, not in special preserves. Young people got jobs, learned skills, worried about money, occasionally got arrested. Through their role in their families, they coped with child-rearing, death, and boring brothers-in-law. They tested their patience, their invention, their ambition, in short, against real measures.
What is convenient to the adult is often corrupting to the young. If the Americanized middle class sends its children away to grow up it is because they are given so few opportunities to do it at home. I am amazed at the number of households in which teenagers have no communal responsibilities at all, who are expected to keep their own rooms tidy but not to mow the lawn or prepare a meal or do the laundry or shop for food.
The notion that sending a kid away to college will mature him has real appeal to parents, in spite of its expense. Making money to pay for college is easier than raising a kid. Parents generally have withdrawn from the latter task, leaving it to TV and the dubious expertise of the professional educator. A culture in which children must learn at school how to use a phone book or make out a grocery list has more wrong with it than its education system. A child's maturity, like his education on frozen food suppers has become a product which can be purchased by parents who are too lazy or too incompetent to provide the real thing themselves. It's rather like packing them off to a finishing school for instruction in morals as well as manners.
If the tens of thousands of dollars being spent per student by taxpayers, parents, and donors is buying neither learning nor wisdom, what is it buying? Basically, those dollars are buying kids four years of exceedingly well-upholstered leisure. Four years during which they muse about life's bigger questions without the pressures of the everyday. Four years during which they may try out alternative identities, or at least alternative wardrobes. Four years during which they may be pretentious without worrying that it will be thought amiss. Four years to read and stare at the moon and write bad poetry.
These are pleasant pursuits. But they have little point beyond themselves. Knowing so little of life, a sophomore's reflections on it, however heartfelt, is not likely to be profound; trying out a new life is mere melodramatics when one hasn't had a chance to try out an old one yet.
Demonstrating the genius of a democratic people, we have managed to get the system precisely backward. It is not the idle eighteen-year-old who needs a tax-supported year off, but his parents and other grownups. Who among us has not dreamed of an expense-paid year to heal the bruises of life? To ponder a mid-career job change. To tend to a new baby. To recover from the death of someone close. To devote to a community project. What more civilized provision could a society make for itself than to spend its wealth so as to offer the privileges of youth to its middle-aged?
I am describing not a pension, but a kind of midlife scholarship, paid for in part by direct government grants, in part by subsidized loans. The money source? Make college a pay-as-you-go proposition. Less aid to students, and fewer students to aid. Shift the burden of training for the professions and trades to the trades and professions, where it belongs, and redirect the savings toward a midlife scholarship program. Oh, some family support would probably be required in most cases, but that's done easily enough. Let the kid take a night job. □