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The Role of Higher Education: Camille Paglia Nails(?) It…

September 3rd, 2010 · 1 Comment · What he/she said

… or at least pretty much nails my personal philosophy in her article Revalorizing the Trades.

When it comes to higher education, I’ve often thought I have things backwards. Even as a youngster it seemed to me that I should use those four (or six, or eight years) in college to try and find a way to support myself as effectively as possible. Work now, retire later was my thinking. Bottom line — get a degree that gets you a good job.

Some of my compatriots at the time were getting degrees in subjects that weren’t necessarily their passions, yet also weren’t ones that were particularly marketable. I was confused until I realized that many students (and parents) view higher education as what I call “interim retirement.” It’s a time to take a few years off to indulge yourself in what Paglia calls a “contemplative realm of humanistic inquiry, removed from vulgar material needs.” In their case — it was retire now, work later.

I would argue that for many (by no means all…), that realm is best entered at age 65, not age 18. Especially when those four years spent studying Lithuanian folk dancing might cost you a couple hundred thousand dollars, and then you’ll be spending your prime earning years scrambling to get that barista job.

Why not study that fun stuff later? I’m very much looking forward to returning to my Alma mater to study subjects I wasn’t even aware of as an undergrad. Plus when I’ll be ready, I can take the classes essentially for free.

This from Paglia (emphasis mine:)

“College education…is doing a poor job of preparing young people for life outside of a narrow band of the professional class.

Jobs, and the preparation of students for them, should be front and center in the thinking of educators. The idea that college is a contemplative realm of humanistic inquiry, removed from vulgar material needs, is nonsense. The humanities have been gutted by four decades of pretentious postmodernist theory and insular identity politics.

Having taught in art schools for most of my four decades in the classroom, I am used to having students who work with their hands—ceramicists, weavers, woodworkers, metal smiths, jazz drummers. There is a calm, centered, Zen-like engagement with the physical world in their lives. In contrast, I see glib, cynical, neurotic elite-school graduates roiling everywhere in journalism and the media. They have been ill-served by their trendy, word-centered educations.

…When middle-class graduates in their mid-20s are just stepping on the bottom rung of the professional career ladder, many of their working-class peers are already self-supporting and married with young children.

The elite schools, predicated on molding students into mirror images of their professors, seem divorced from any rational consideration of human happiness…”

While I am an opinionated SOB, I don’t particularly feel that my way is the only way. There’s a certain small percentage of high school graduates who know exactly what they want to do with their lives and are dedicated to pursuing a degree that enables it. They don’t want to “retire” — they’ve found a purpose in their lives, and marketability be damned.

Good for them! They are the lucky ones.

For the rest of the student body who are trying to figure out what they want to do for the next 50 years, I might suggest consideration of the path that is less fun in the short term, but more rewarding in the long term. Get a degree that facilitates the job hunt, and once you’ve put some money in the bank pursue those passions and interests that have now gelled in your adult brain.

A related article is this essay written by Ben Stein. It’s less nuanced than the Paglia piece, but significantly more pragmatic. I consider both of these to be required reading for any Junior in high school.


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