Whoso loveth instruction loveth knowledge,
but he that hateth reproof is brutish
It was always going to be a strange day. Taking the high school students to the University expo, fair. Or would it turn out to be a circus, complete with clowns, unicycles, and bearded ladies, a macabre show masquerading under the pretense of education but whose aim was nothing more than to entertain the youth and convince them that paying tens of thousands of dollars to a university over the next four years would be in their best interest. There was plenty of room to doubt that the students were excited about this trip. In conversations prior to our departure, it seemed impossible, but they were more cynical than I was. Their lack of concern as to what they might be studying in two years time was no less than disturbing, reckless even.
To set the context, a couple of months back I asked my students “how do you learn something?” A student was quick to reply “pay a teacher.” A response I was far from expecting and when I asked the rest of the class what they thought, I soon appreciated that it was universally accepted that the payment of money, to them constitutes the first stage of the learning process. Thus calling into question the academic theories of Vygotsky, Piaget, and Bruner, whilst laughing in the face of Socrates’ and his gallant refusal to accept payment for teaching. In fact according to these students every theory of learning had been blown apart by their collective cynicism and is in need of immediate revision. The fact that these students were able to surpass my own vast reserves of cynicism left me feeling unnerved, unsure as to who I was and the role that I was expected to play in this whole teacher, student dynamic. Their view of things was different from that of my generation. After all it had taken my generation years of disappointment to achieve our degree of cynicism, but here were these young upstarts showing contempt for accepted standards of honesty and morality, bitterly sneering, contemptuous.
What was happening? What was next? We were going to a university fair, of that much I was sure, but these cynical vibrations had set me on edge, taken me by surprise. Would I be able to endure the 3 hour van journey, confined in such an enclosed space, participating in conversations that were more akin to free association, or that would perhaps deteriorate completely and leave us at the level of dumb beasts? It was too late to worry about these questions, all of us were committed no matter how strange the vibrations got.
The Costs Versus the Value of a University Education
What are the costs of going to university and how well are they off set by the benefits? 30 years ago a university degree assured the graduate of employment and receiving a decent salary, as well as a prime position for professional development and promotion. A graduate could expect to earn the sort of salary that would finance a steady coke habit, develop a gambling addiction, or any of the other good old fashioned American pastimes. Today the world of the graduate is less bountiful, offering far less opportunity to develop self destructive habits. With nearly every country in Europe and North America languishing in a time of austerity, and little to no economic growth, opportunities are few and far between. Therefore it requires serious thought, wealthy parents or a fearless student who is unafraid to yoke themselves with up to $100,000 worth of debt, for which there is no guarantee, that at the end of it they will secure a ways or means of paying it off. In some respects you might just be better off borrowing $100,000, and go to Vegas, it would after all be quicker than the 4 years of study and probably has a similar chance of seeing a beneficial financial return.
US student debt is scary. It’s an uncontrollable, rabid bull, intoxicated by the scent of youthful optimism, that has been set loose in an academic china shop. Student debt is in excess of $1.2 trillion, a debt greater than that owed by all Americans on their credit cards. Student debt is also greater than the total outstanding on mortgages. In 2005 the average student debt was $17,233, by 2012 that amount had risen 58% to $27,253.
Student debt has a knock on effect as it delays a student from making financial commitments such as taking on a mortgage or a car loan, making regular payments to the local meth dealer, starting a new businesses or saving for the future. This immense financial strain on the educated sector of society has a potentially disastrous national economic effect.
Life for a new graduate can be extremely disappointing. The number of new graduates each year vastly out numbers graduate level jobs.
- Forty one percent of workers who graduated from college in the past two years say they are underemployed and working in jobs that do not require their college degrees;
- 41% 0f recent graduates are earning &25,000 or less;
- 80% of college graduates expect their first employer to provide a training program;
- 52% of graduates did not receive training through formal programs at their first job;
- 38% of new graduates have to live with mum or dad upon graduating.
- Only 16 percent of students who will graduate in 2013 had already secured employment as of April 1, 2013.
Figures like this make you question the morality of taking a bus load of students to a University Fair without giving them a prior warning of the scope and magnitude of making this decision.
When I had been at the fair for about a couple of hours, I decided it was time to start antagonizing the miserable souls who had been wedged into their booths like irritable, obese battery hens, forced to sell their university. I had come all this way and it seemed like the least I could do was try and learn something while harassing some poor sod who was just trying to make their way peacefully through the day. Unaware as I am to the intricacies and workings of the U.S education system, I decided to meet with a representative of ACE, a service funded through the U.S State Dept. They provide advice and support to overseas students wishing to go to university in the U.S. A pleasant man brandished his business card at me, sporting the rather comedic name Mike Hock. I could tell by the look in his eye that he believed he was doing the right thing, he believed in his position in life. Usually I find such optimism to be nauseous and repulsive. Instantly I could tell that Mike was probably the type of guy that was into extreme sports, doing press ups before taking a shower each morning, and on a gluten free diet. But, I knew I had to grit my teeth and establish communications with Mike to allow my curiosity to be satisfied. In what developed to become an eminently forgettable conversation I was left puzzled by one thing he said. U.S students sit the S.A.T, on which the average student gets a score of about 1,500 out of a possible 2,400. Mike told me students with an S.A.T score of 1,000 could find a place at a university in America. This set off the cymbals of cognitive dissonance in my head. Surely university is a place for those who have shown competency in academics. Why would someone so far below average want to even pursue getting a university degree? I wonder what would happen to professional sports teams if they adopted a similar selection criteria. If I had the cash could I be playing short stop for the Yankees? But it’s not just American universities that have turned their back on education in the interest of corporate greed. The U.K also seems to think that education must equal debt.
So it appears that American and U.K universities are not so much academic institutions focused on developing the knowledge of their students, but more of a proxy for financial institutions that ensnare graduates into financial servitude.
It’s ironic, a saying intended to inspire original thought has now become an oxymoron and parodies itself due to its unoriginal and over usage. Surely it’s time for someone to think outside the cone, maybe someone could think outside the context, think outside the book or the page if this metaphor is to retain its purpose of conveying the need for originality. As it is, it has become nothing more than a tired, sad, old, overworked metaphor carelessly bandied around in staff rooms by teachers who have all but given up the will to think and perhaps even the will to live.
Thinking outside the box is what teachers endlessly encourage their students to do. To think critically about what they are told and what they read, and yet at the university fair every student unquestioningly accepted that university has to be their next step. They unquestioningly accept that amassing enormous debt is nothing more than a rite of passage. These students weren’t even thinking of going to university as a decision for it had already been decided on a subconscious level, with no thought, understanding, or questioning of whether it will benefit them. There was more chance of me finding a missing Malaysian airliner than of finding a critical thought in this venue.
Are life’s most valuable skills learned inside a classroom?
As the sun set behind the hilly landscape and the bus darkened, so did my mood. Here I was shepherding this young flock of unsuspecting lambs into the jaws of financial servitude, this was weighing heavily on my conscience, adding to my self loathing. I was keenly aware of the need to finish this account positively, after all these are my students and this is their future I’m talking about. So before my mood toppled over the edge and into the abyss of despair, I removed my head from out of my ass and took a look around the bus. Despite the fact that the students were hungry and tired they sat quietly talking to one another, laughing,smiling. You could tell these students lived in a dormitory together, their interactions were more akin to that of family members than just school friends. The few students that didn’t board at the school were included into this dynamic without hesitation or a second thought. Despite their tiredness the students maintained the highest respect for both their friends and their teachers. I started to realize the value of these students and what they can potentially offer to society in ten years time. I can honestly say that these grade ten and eleven students were exhibiting social skills that were far more developed than the majority of adults I come into contact with. These characteristics were not learned inside a classroom, nor have they ever been assessed and given a score out of 10. They have been honing these skills almost from birth, practicing and refining them with the zeal and discipline of the most dedicated student.
The purpose and values of schools have long been questioned (see JT Gato Weapons of Mass Instruction). What are the skills that students need to learn today for tomorrow’s society? The mass production, industrial assembly line, that teachers like to think doesn’t exist today does, only on an even grander more complex scale than ever before. I cannot believe that it is in the best interest of a student to commence their professions under the burden of such debt.
As is often the case, my students teach me the most profound lessons. They have shown me what a people can do for one another. That kindness and consideration when shown equally throughout a group is enormously powerful. If someone had the money to invest in these students they would work so well and so hard together they would be able to rival any organization. And none of these skills were taught by me, not in a classroom.
I only hope the students remain patient and will be good enough to continue to teach me, although what they’re going to get out of it god only knows.