College affordability ranks among the top challenges facing the United States. The problem is compounded by the fact that college tuition, like taxes, is never likely to decrease but will continue to rise. Perhaps the most serious symptom of this fact is the question of a degree and its value to the student. This question of educational value is second only to affordability when it comes to higher education in the United States. Because of the skyrocketing costs of higher education more emphasis has been placed on assessment and the marketability of degrees than ever before. As a result a disturbing number of Americans have come to think of the college degree as nothing more than a key to a better future through a higher paying job, thus justifying the astronomical costs of a college education.
President Obama’s recent remarks concerning the lack of market value in majoring in art history calls attention to exactly what is wrong with our conception of higher education today. His comment, “I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or in the trades than they might make with an art history degree,” is not only insulting, the thinking is wrong. If we allow ourselves to believe that the value of a college degree can only be measured by the skills and marketability that degree brings to the student, we are condemning ourselves to a future consisting of the mass production of mindless, but obedient, workers. Perhaps this is exactly what legislators want since they seem to spend so much time discussing skills in favor of what counts for knowledge.
It is impossible to guarantee that students will be gainfully employed once they graduate from college. We live in a capitalist society that is predicated on chance, not hard work, despite what the columnists will tell you. Yet, the pressure Washington is putting on institutes of higher education to produce statistical results to justify programs like the Pell Grant is harsh and oppressive. What is sacrificed is the concept of learning for the sake of data collection.
In one of the literature classes I am teaching this semester we are reading Proust. There is nothing about Proust that will help my students get a job or train them for the “real world.” I have them read Proust because I think they will be better for having read it. This is not a question of being labor ready, but of becoming a thoughtful and engaged person who can contribute to our democratic values, not our capitalist ones. Some of our legislators and college administrators will have us believe that the above example is a hard sell when it comes to value, that parents will not shell out hard earned money for their child to read Proust. This may be true, but universities and colleges should be leading the discussion, not responding to the market.
Education has, for all intents and purposes, ceased to be a value in and of itself, and now its only valuable in its role as exchange value. That is, the student must be able to exchange his or her degree for something of equal or greater value upon graduation: i.e. a respectable job. This constitutes more than a simple diversion of a desire for knowledge because what is at stake is knowledge itself. The reduction of education to the acquirement of certain skill sets is really nothing other than the reduction of knowledge in general. It is the well-rounded individuals that make for enlightened and engaged citizens in a rapidly changing world. Contemporary education philosophy co-opts knowledge for skills which in turn severely limits the overall knowledge base of graduates. The true culprit here is capitalism with its emphasis on pragmatic and utilitarian modes that ultimately leads to profit for employers.
By reducing educational value to its most utilitarian we are taking away the ability to think critically in a culture that claims to value critical thinking skills. Of course, all of this would be moot if higher education actually placed a value on critical thinking rather than paying it lip service. By allowing employers to dictate curriculum higher education is failing to educate a generation of students. Instead, higher education is producing, on a massive scale, workers who are saddled with crushing debt, thereby forcing those them to remain active workers.
Thus, one reason American education is failing resides within the misplaced marketability value we attach to degrees. Combined with the rise of the number of administrators, the increasing irrelevance of teachers, and the obsessive role data-driven-assessment and standardized testing plays in curriculum, college students are being robbed of what is supposed to be one of the most important experiences in their lives. In this age of assessment (which translates into the increasing accountability of teachers and the decreasing accountability of students) and standardized testing, the American educational apparatus has moved the importance of allowing teachers to do what they do best, that is teach, to the background. Until we turn away from standardized testing and stop allowing the job market to dictate curriculum, and until we once again take up the fight for the value of education as a thoughtful and transformative experience, then education will never raise the level of discourse needed to enrich a civil society. What’s at stake is not only the future of education, but also the future of our society.