Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Yellow Buses

The “Drive Carefully, School’s Out” posters on the roadsides once again have been exchanged for “Drive Carefully, School’s Open” posters.

The local schools opened today – I don’t know why today rather than yesterday. As it happens today, September 5, is the anniversary of the day I took my first peek inside a classroom. Preschools were virtually unknown at the time, so it was first day of Kindergarten. (On the other hand I was 4; throughout grammar and high schools I was the youngest in my class; “redshirting” was not yet fashionable; on the contrary, back then parents’ liked to see their kids skip grades.) What year? Well, let’s just say a fellow named Ike was still scratching the floors of the White House with his golf shoes. The teacher was the ominously named Miss Feare, though if I recognized any irony in that I don’t recall it, and I doubt I was capable of it.

Some 17 years later I walked away from my last class at GWU, which was on 19th century European diplomatic history. Realizing it was my last undergraduate class, I recall thinking, “I should be experiencing greater emotion than this.” Well, some landmark events we take in stride more easily than others. (Actually, I did end up taking classes after that, but not toward another degree.)

Was all of that really valuable? Is it for students now, especially considering that the cost of schools and college are about triple in real terms what they were in my days of attendance? Yes, it was valuable in a humanistic way, at least to me; I simply like having had a liberal arts education. Viewing diplomas and degrees as union cards for white collar work, however, as we tend to do these days, the answer is murkier. There are degrees that are aimed at specific careers (e.g. accounting), and these are certainly valuable economically, but most bachelor degrees are not so precisely targeted. Few people of my acquaintance work at anything resembling their fields of study. I surely don’t. (I neither opened a history shop nor demanded a living on the grounds that I could read Latin, though perhaps I missed an opportunity.) It’s not at all clear that taking on substantial debt burdens just for a degree is economically beneficial per se. College boosters point out that people with college degrees have far higher lifetime earnings on average than people without them, but that average includes all those people with the career-specific degrees (doctors, architects, civil engineers, and so on). Also, it seems likely that the kind of people who finish college are the kind of people who later do well at work – not because of the degree but because of the personal qualities that enabled them to earn it, and which they still would have without it. In strict dollars and cents terms, many of these folk might be better off joining the workforce after high school, thereby getting four extra years of full-time earnings.

Still, I’m not urging anyone to drop out – certainly not any Kindergartener on his or her first day of school. There are those humanistic benefits of education to keep in mind, and if you are of an ilk to enjoy those (and can afford them), by all means grab them. But if you’re not, maybe when 12th grade rolls around (but not before then), it’s time to do some math and make choices accordingly. Our modern cultural assumption that college always is best needs a rewrite, or at least an addendum.

“20 Years of Schooling and They Put You on the Day Shift”

The business managers for Bob Dylan (who dropped out of college freshman year, by the way)  protect his copyrights very well indeed, and no longer permit embedding most of his videos, but here is a link to view and hear Subterranean Homesick Blues on site


  1. I've pondered the value of my education more than once. I came to the conclusion that elementary school was a necessity. But junior high (7th and 8th grades for me) was less about learning and more about surviving. Really a nasty couple years for me and where the only real memories in the classroom were of enduring till the end of the day (with a couple exceptions, my Spanish teacher really tried to teach and loved the language).

    High school wasn't so bad, but it still seems a bit pointless. Again, personal interaction with others seems to be the major asset I learned there, as well as some basic sciences that I ended up enjoying (Chemistry and Anatomy). The best year was my senior year, where I was forced by a friend to take a drama course and it literally changed everything for me. I opened up more, met a lot of great outgoing girls (including my future wife) and actually had some fun that year.

    My four years in university were wonderful. Yeah, there was a lot of hard work, and there were times where I wondered how the hell I was going to read all the material I had assigned. But I loved it. I loved the myriad of classes, the avenues of learning I could delve into, the people I met and the way it really brought home how to think on my own and not just spit back what was told to me (something that pretty much all my previous education seemed to miss entirely). Those were great years and I wouldn't lose them if I was offered a hefty sum to do so.

    How did it all come into play with my current career? Well it helped a little. I have a BA in Communication, and I minored in Drama. I had dreams of being a screenwriter. But now I'm a tech writer for a bank. I'm writing for a living, which is what I wanted, but now it's about working with investors instead of sci-fi or fantasy stories. :)

    1. In truth, most people get by their entire lives on what they learned in elementary school plus whatever specific job training they have had for their work. They forget almost everything else, as is evidenced by the commonly dismal performance of accomplished professionals on “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?”

      I suspect you would be a good writer regardless of college, as writers ultimately are self-taught. They might take advantage of college resources to hone skills if they are available, but in the absence of them would succeed at honing some other way. The superb wordsmith Gore Vidal claimed college ruined more authors than it ever created – he was a HS grad who bragged about not having a degree. Nevertheless, you also are the sort of person for whom college is valuable in a broader cultural sense. You plainly got something (and kept something) from the liberal arts exposure and from the general college environment. (I harbor the conceit that I took away something too, if not as much as I should have done.) For the people who can benefit this way, it’s definitely worth it even at today’s truly ridiculous tuitions. But not everyone does. More than a few college grads I encounter strike me as no more erudite than high schoolers. (42% of college grads never read another book recreationally!) Maybe they’d have done as well following Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mary Kay Ash, Michael Dell, or Steven Spielberg by dropping out.