This time of year, tour after tour of prospective students crisscrosses the grounds of the college where I work part-time as a tutor. Most are kids, young adults, but a surprising number of them are middle-aged—a castaway look in the eye, one that hints at the forlornness of rebuilding from scratch. I wonder how many are coming to fulfill a long-held dream of college, to climb their way up while they still can, and how many simply have no choice but to retrain after getting downsized out of once-reliable jobs.
It’s not just the prospectives, though; it’s the other employees. All around me in the office there is talk about loans, loans, loans: public loan, private loan. Six years, eight years. Refinance, renegotiate, default. The talk about money is tense and unending, a slow-boiling obsession, and creates a strange kind of gallows fellowship. Between my own tutoring appointments, as I try to get some of my own reading done, it becomes a soft drone, snippets floating across the hallway:
“…–––’s stuck with 7.8 percent interest, it’s crazy…”
“…oh my god, it’s 1200 dollars, I need that so bad…”
“I know, I know, I told my mom she could handle the loan, but…”
“We want to go to Toronto… but it’s $140 for the round trip so…”
“Yep, I’m going back to school, so will probably put another 20 or 30 grand on top of that at least…”
“…Well you just put it [more debt] on there, don’t think about it, live a happy life…”
“…They say yeah, gotta focus on your schooling, so just don’t think about it…”
And of course, now and then you hear the master of them all, the sentiment that goads all the others along:
“…The bank will own me…”
Hearing all this, over and over, I find myself thinking: what are we doing?
Mind you, it’s been heading towards this for decades. Somewhere in the ‘80s or early ‘90s, in keeping with the neoliberal credo that no form of human endeavor could not be improved by regarding it as a cutthroat business, mighty minds of marketing set out to present college as a must-have, a rite of passage, an “investment in your future”—and a gigantic industry arose. “Universities are like factories, and I’m in sales”, seemed to become the mantra of more and more college higher-ups. Endowments expanded into the billions; tuitions escalated, closely linked to a rising ratio of administrators to professors; while at the same time, for many public institutions, funding increasingly got dropped into the laps of students.
Now almost everyone thinks they have to do it, and millions are in debt they can’t get out of—$1.4 trillion nationwide as of September. The average US college student’s debt at graduation now stands at a little over $35,000, and shows a steady upward tread. Even the traditionally highest-earning professions are facing debt headwinds so huge they can be very hard to fight: the median of medical student debt, for instance, now easily exceeds $200,000. No matter what path you choose, education starts to seem more and more like digging a deep hole, simply because someone told you there might a ladder buried further down.
Maybe it wasn’t just greed that got us here though, but a well-meaning Enlightenment belief gone amiss—something like a belief in the perfectibility of human intellect and the innate value of learning, which slowly got garbled into “get more school, whatever it is, at all costs”. Perhaps it was due to the belief that our ever-increasing financialized Escher-economy would always make space for more workers, without their ever having to submit to the soul-killing contrivance of menial or bullshit jobs (though if they did, no one who mattered really cared).
Or maybe, too, it was a belief in the limitless magical power of our own American innovativeness, a subtle way of patting ourselves on the back for inventing an economic system so incredibly nifty, so futuristically ingenious, that exacting crippling amounts of schooling and debt just to get by in it could seem like a feature and not a bug (even the populist Bernie Sanders has taken to saying, rather unquestioningly, that an undergrad degree is the equivalent of what a high school diploma once was).
On an even more fundamental level, one could justify it all by making recourse to various smart-sounding but scarcely understood social phenomena. Take the Flynn effect: this finding says that since 1900 all our IQs have been rising for some mysterious reason(s). Ergo, since people must be getting smarter all the time (and surely will continue to, since our system is so awesome), the efflorescence of degrees must be a sign not of some kind of scam or of unrealistic goals, but in fact a tribute to humanity’s and America’s ever-escalating genius-ness. This is reminiscent of the blind more-is-better way the explosion of publication counts is oft taken as a sign of the supreme vitality of today’s sciences, or the petabytes of data sent over social media are taken as some indicator of healthy community and burgeoning pan-human sentiment: more must mean smarter.
But on the ground, it feels like something quite different. Aspiration has been twisted 180 degrees, till it has become a tool used to jab the aspirational. On the great treadmill of the “knowledge economy”, the working man and woman—as well as educators themselves—have been instructed to outrun automation, it seems, while shouldering an exponentiating burden of formal education and debt. And despite what the Flynn effect may say, the impression of waves of unprecedented intellect flooding our entire system is, shall we say, curiously absent.
And so, having taken the neoliberal-techno-accelerationist’s approach to education, there follows the difficulty that dogs all factory-style production: the problem of oversupply. It seems we are approaching the point of having glutted the country with highly-priced degrees; having been sold like a good and often awarded to customer-students who don’t always cut the mustard, college educations are now sinking to the relative utility level that a much shorter (and free) high school education once afforded.
This is not to mention that the idea of students as “customers” in a growth-oriented but rigged market has hardly just made degrees simultaneously more expensive and less valuable; it has also cut in other directions. “The customer is always right”, after all, is not the most helpful mentality to mix with an undertaking that often requires reminding students of the embarrassing gap between their aspirations and self-concept and their present actual knowledge. Grade inflation, the strip-mining of grievance and identity culture, and threatening complaints from students against any criticism or “microaggression” are par for the course by now. Such behavior plays into a vicious cycle, as successive waves of graduates become more and more brittle and self-absorbed and less likely to cope or to strive.
This strange mixture of exalted self-entitlement and hapless debt servitude has created the perfect recruits for a new underclass, what you might call the “knowledge serfdom”, which spans the chronically underemployed graduates with now useless degrees, and the armies of postdocs and adjunct minions whose underpaid and insecure misery greases the wheels of the modern university.
What is our answer to all this? Enter what may be the central maxim of our times, the maxim of inverse reform: the only allowable solution to a problem is to repeat the problem with more intensity.
Taking their cue from the “Inexorable Climb of Knowledgey-ness” narrative parroted by countless figures like Sanders, more and more graduates are obligingly deciding that if a lot of education didn’t get them the job of their dreams, then maybe they should pile on a super super extra lot of it and head on to grad school. The debt staircase thus promises to get steeper and steeper, while the value of these more advanced degrees, too, becomes more dilute.
There is already plentiful evidence of a glut of doctorates. This includes not just mail-order “PhD’s” through phishing scams, or humanities PhDs who have always, it seems, had tougher prospects, but STEM PhDs—you know, those wondrous gifts-that-keep-on-giving, the cross-beams of the Knowledge Economy, of which we supposedly can’t ever have too many.
Not so very long ago, a PhD (or even the right kind of master’s degree) was a sign of rather extraordinary aptitude for and dedication to, a subject, and was valued accordingly, either in the form of an academic position with reasonable benefits or a private sector job with chances for advancement.
Nowadays, the PhD instead seems to have become another step on the path of dead-end intensification, mindless debt and precious self-importance. One meets secretaries who struggle with apostrophe use and basic spelling but talk about picking a doctorate up “on the side”; housewives who read Madame Bovary ten years ago deciding to go for an PhD in English, out of the astounding belief that doing so would relieve their domestic boredom; and school counselors who believe getting a PhD in education will launch them into some rarefied realm of highly-paid course-schedule-consulting masters of the universe. Even those who already have PhDs seem increasingly to be throwing themselves back for second doctorates.
Is this gluttony for punishment, or desperation? Putting all griping and incredulity aside, there might another possibility: perhaps the reason for the degree craze is not simply the mistaken hope that it will be a ticket to the top, but something more existential about our time and place, i.e., there is nothing better to do. For, in this generation, one perceives that school has acquired the status of a safe-haven, a port in the storm, a failsafe against uncertain or un-fruitful prospects.
But it was never supposed to be that: real education is a confrontation with the unknown, a testing of one’s limits; a sometimes-painful quest to broaden one’s vision as much as one’s knowledge; and above all, an immersion and a preparation for thinking, that most nettlesome and unloved of pastimes, out in the teeth of a world that often values it little.
Contrary to the boilerplate exhortations about the brave new Knowledge Economy ahead, the system simply has no use for all these putative eggheads, nor will it: for despite our current ideological inability to acknowledge it, intellectual wealth—wisdom—has never been and never will be mass-producible, nor commensurable with any numerical rubric of material wealth. Scholarship without talent, minds without intellectual fire, all based on a wrong-footed conception of employment and human potential, is hardly good for the academy—but it most certainly will not suffice to keep a nation of 320 million afloat, the less so as the prospects for extending growth look shakier.
Part fool and part victim, our new human-waves of debt-slave graduates promise to file their way into the ranks of the knowledge serfdom, where they will quietly form a socioeconomic powder-keg of discombobulated ambitions and overestimated potentials. If it finds a voice and a focus, it likely will come to rival the blue-collar frustration among rural whites that was widely credited with delivering Donald Trump the presidency.
I have this image, probably over-romanticized, that back in the days of America’s grand ascent into industrial-fueled prosperity—let’s say from 1850 thru the 1920s—the smartest people were typically the go-getters and inventors, the self-made mavericks who didn’t stand on ceremony too much, who jumped at things, and blazed new paths; then, as the 20th century wore on and the age of professionalism ballooned in complexity and impressiveness, that gave way to the safer path of layered education and credentialing. It worked, too, for a certain time, giving the best and brightest a place to think and grow in relative peace.
Now, all I can think is that the smartest people must be the ones who get out of school as soon as humanly possible, and find a way support themselves doing as close to nothing as humanly possible, or following their own hobbies and projects for their own sake, and generally just get out of the damn way. In this environment, to do more is just to fall further behind.
As for “getting ahead”, that mythic creature, the only secret seems to be: already be the person that people in charge know and want. But if you are that person, your education will hardly matter. Like so many things, the answer comes down a return of that an age-old calculus: some are in the club, and some just ain’t.