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Our Broken Educations
September 19, 2014
by J.A. Young

During the fall of 2007 while I was being run through the sterilized, impersonal, rigmarole of applying to universities I remember coming face-to-face with an unfortunate truth. While I spent hours at my computer screen, filling out personal information, test scores and life goals, and bullshitting about my community service experience I thought about the reality of what was happening. I was essentially being asked to boil down my short life into a file that would then be reviewed, however modestly, by admissions workers at various schools to determine if I would be accepted.  The only factors that would end up deciding the next four years of my life were a series of numbers and arbitrary requirements.  Those variables would then be considered against information about each school’s quota for racial diversity, economic fairness and a well-balanced student body.  I could have been a complete sociopath, a violent asshole, or a cultural invalid, and these schools would have had no way of knowing the difference. This is a telling beginning to a system of higher education that has become as corporatized, egocentric and narcissistic as the students it produces. It is one of the key first steps towards obtaining what we like to call a “liberal arts” education. And yet, the process contains no trace of the honest and free discourse that we would like our students to be involved in.


The reason that degrees in the Humanities are called liberal arts degrees has nothing to do with liberalism; it is a historic reference to becoming a member of a liberated society. This means that once you receive a liberal arts education you should be able to live your life properly in a free civilization. This is an educational process that is supposed to entail much more than obtaining high grades, getting valuable work-placement opportunities and fighting tooth-and-nail to try and get on the right career track. It’s a style of teaching that is intended to build competent and critical human beings. But the core of a liberal arts education, helping people become functioning adults, has been completely disregarded from many college curricula in favor of status and corporate approval. Today, even our best institutions of higher education more closely resemble job factories than they do schools.

This problem starts at the beginning of our college careers and carries on through to the end for most.

Nothing about the process of applying to colleges was designed to let admissions officers understand their candidates as people.  An applicant could be a terrible person, born into a family full of bigots and racists, and none of that would matter.  As long as your SAT's are high enough and you can adequately pretend to care about starving Haitian orphans, then you can be accepted to one of the best schools in the country — with not so much as a phone conversation with a real person. There are of course a few select candidates for admission who will receive some face time with an admissions officer or maybe even a higher administrator, but those people are the exception. For most of us, the selection process is cold and dehumanized. These characterizations most often continue to describe the educations that students will receive as they follow paths of learning that stress obligations to obtaining money and good social standing.


The popular theory in modern Western culture is clearly that the goal of going to college is to obtain a high salary, irrespective of what your career may be.  Any freshman undergraduate who is asked about their newly-decided college major will inevitably hear either a question or statement in response. If the degree is in the humanities or immaterial science the question is usually: “what can you do with that degree?” If the student says that they are going to be an engineer or a corporate accountant, the questioner will likely respond, "You'll make a lot of money doing that." In my experience talking with college students coming from both elite and modest colleges and universities, the bottom line always falls on money.  

It is exceedingly uncommon to have a discussion of what a student may enjoy doing or what an education should entail other than starting you on a career. It is only a lucky few of us who have made it through the process with our heads still on the right way, able to understand that there is more to life than a good pension.


It is another basic part of a liberal arts education that students should have their own ideas vigorously challenged and debated. In today’s system, thousands of students exit their college careers every year having never had any of their own ideas and perspectives exposed to real scrutiny. They eventually find their cookie-cutter place in an economic system that is not concerned with human well-being or personal goals. In a lecture that can be found in the new documentary The Unbelievers, physicist Lawrence Krause proposes one of the key parts of any valuable educational experience. In his defense of science, Krause says that in every student’s college career, there should be a moment where they find out something they deeply believed is completely false. There should be at least one, and ideally many other times, when a student is humbled by evidence against their own bias. This idea of learning through exposing your own prejudices and changing your opinions is for the most part completely absent from our modern universities. At places where learning is supposed to be the highest concern, students are repeatedly shrugged off for asking questions that upset our economic, social and religious dogmas.


Compounding this bastardized version of the liberal arts education is a tendency for schools to evoke a nationalistic fervor in their students. More often than not undergraduates are meant to feel special, to deride the student body of “lesser” universities. All of this fuels the egocentric mantras of many of our great schools. It is no secret that colleges are fond of creating more of their own, choosing their student bodies based upon whose parents were successful before them. The best institutions of higher education also tend to promote their own individual theories, cultures and ideas about what is proper. In the end, it is a supreme focus on the ego, on the individual, that is poisoning our educations. Our economy has fallen into shambles because people would rather earn another penny than help those around them. That same selfish focus is why so many of our college graduates enter the world as cynical, self-righteous corporate machines who believe that their degree means they were properly educated.


This is a system where there is no reason to better yourself, because in the end those people are suckers, they pick the wrong jobs and spend their lives without 401K’s working for non-profit organizations.


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