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Saturday, March 5, 2011


Political commentators on the left, in which group I include myself, are generally rather contemptuous of Republican politicians who pander to their base by pretending, by winks and nods and code words, to share the off-the-wall nuttiness of the birthers and their fellow crazies. Just this past week brought us the spectacle of Mike Huckabee, first spinning a weird narrative about the effect of the Mau Mau movement on young Barack Obama, growing up in Kenya, and then attacking Natalie Portman, on the occasion of her Oscar success, for bearing an "out of child wedlock." [He really did say that, honest.]

Well, in my own small way, I am, I fear, prone to a bit of pandering to my small base. Some of my blog posts spark a spirited and lengthy comment thread, and that does, I admit, prompt me to post similar materials in hopes of evoking more comments. Other posts, even ones of which I am rather enamored, stimulate little or no response. One of my most favorite all time students, who is now embarked on a wonderfully successful career, publishing book after book, keeps urging me to post recipes from my Paris apartment and details of my private life, so I do my best to satisfy her taste in blog posts. The occasional "tutorials" I have attempted, on how to study society or the thought of Karl Marx, seem to draw an interested audience, so I cast about for another topic on which I might hold forth for multiple posts.

At the moment, my mind is focused on the subject of higher education. I have already put up on this blog my draft proposal for a center or project devoted to the study of the fate of the Humanities in higher education. I am going to carry on with that topic for a bit, sorting out thoughts that are not yet fully formed. I hope this will spark some interest, even though it will contain no recipes and very little personal information.

Meanwhile, for those following events in the Middle East, as I am, let me strongly recommend two sites as worth regular visits: Al Jazeera English, and Juan Cole's Informed Comment [Google both to get their urls.] In a remarkable recent speech, no less a personage than the United States Secretary of State criticized American network and cable news for the vacuity of its coverage of the Middle East upheavals and actually commended Al Jazeera in English.

So, to higher education. Let me begin with some statistical measures of the exposure of Americans to higher education. These figures come from a rather well written and quite informative Wikipedia article on "Educational attainment in the United States." The lengthy article is full of useful information, but I am going to devote this post to the first and simplest set of data -- the percentage of adult Americans who have completed high school and the percentage who have earned a first or Bachelor's Degree. Here are the numbers: In 1950, roughly 32 % of Americans 25 or over had completed high school. A bit more than 50% of Americans 25 to 29 had completed high school. In that same year, only about 6% of either group had earned a bachelor's degree. Over the next half century, both of these figures rose pretty steadily, so that in 2000, close to 85% of both groups had completed high school, and just under 30% of both groups had earned a first or Bachelor's Degree. In the following years, the proportion of the population over 35 who had finished high school crept up a bit, and the proportion earning a Bachelor's Degree continued to rise slowly.

Now, there are all sorts of interesting data in the article breaking these figures down by race, gender, and ethnicity, as well as details about average weekly earnings, average household income, and so forth. There is even a fascinating final section that introduces the usually taboo subject of class and ties it to the data in the article. But I want to pause at these initial data and reflect on what they tell us about the real America, not the America portrayed on television or talked about in political speeches.

Even now, after fifty years of steadily increasing exposure to higher education, SEVEN IN TEN ADULT AMERICANS DO NOT HAVE A BACHELOR'S DEGREE. And this is as true of young Americans in their later twenties as it is of the entire population, including senior citizens who went through their young adulthood at a time when a college education was much less common. That means that almost the entire array of good jobs is closed forever to that seventy percent. They cannot hope to be doctors, lawyers, architects, college professors, high school teachers, elementary school teachers, corporate executives, or dentists, and their chances of being considered for a wide range of other jobs is small to nil. Wall Street, advertising, medical technicians, insurance company executives? Not likely.

These are not a ragtag group of left-behind sad sacks who somehow goofed off and so never got that BA. These ARE America. There are a bit more than two hundred million Americans 25 or over, and roughly 140 million of them do NOT have Bachelor's Degrees. In short, the norm in America is not to have a college degree.

I would imagine, judging from the comments, that everyone who reads this blog either has a first college degree or is on track to acquire one. Indeed, a rather large fraction of my readers have doctorates, I would guess. And yet nationwide [leaving aside the visitors from abroad], fewer than 3% of Americans 25 and older have earned doctorates.

In short, working class America is America, by any reasonable interpretation of the data. That puts the protests in Wisconsin in a somewhat different light, I think.

I shall continue with this line of thought tomorrow.


Murfmensch said...

Another issue of justice. It is very hard to make a degree count without some people being let in who end up without a degree.

We can't tell ahead of time who will fail to finish but it is hard to establish a standard without failing someone.

We can't train nurses and doctors without failing some of the people who were let in earlier to med school or into a nursing program.

Do we owe some consideration to the people who were "set up" this way? (I am not saying anyone is owed a degree.)

English Jerk said...

One topic that might deserve additional consideration in this context is the casualization of academic labor (which I seem to recall Dr. Wolff mentioning before, and which, in any case, I'm sure he's well aware of). At this point, the majority of the professoriat are not in tenure-track positions, which means that they have no academic freedom protection of any kind (not to mention adequate remuneration and job security). The push to casualization is thus a direct attack on the only institutional embodiment of disinterested rational inquiry in our society.

And, needless to say, even if you have a doctorate, you are still likely to be earning wages below the poverty line, which surely puts you in the working class (unlike tenure-stream professors, who are part of management and will often, when it comes to action rather than platitudes, behave accordingly).

Casualization also, of course, has other undesirable effects, not least on students. Students frequently find the transition to college traumatic in various ways, and it's often the case that the only class they have that's small enough that the professor knows their name is also the class that's taught by somebody who could be fired for no reason next semester (or rather, "not rehired"). What message does this communicate to students about the value of rational inquiry?

So it seems to me that these particular economic/institutional facts on the ground are a serious obstacle to offering what (for me) is the only serious defense of higher education, namely its research mission (which its teaching mission, properly conceived, is defined with reference to--not least because students should always be taught be active researchers). Such are my tuppence, anyway.

(Also, Dr. Wolff, don't think that a lack of comments necessarily reflects a lack of interest. I'll generally not comment unless I think I have something of substance to say, but it's perfectly possible that I have nothing to contribute because what I'd say has already been said.)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you both for the comments. i plan to keep this discussion going for a while, and hope to take up both points along the way. I had not before encountered the term "casualization" for what I am accustomed to refer to as part time, or contract, instructors, but your points are all very well taken.

There really is an enormous amount to talk about, but then, I am retired, and it is my blog, so I shall just natter on.

Michael said...

via Harry Brighouse (a philosophy professor at UW Madison) at I found this site which allows people to directly contribute to the 14 Wisconsin state Dems who have left the state. Considering that they are being fined $100 a day and having their paychecks held, its probably one of the better ways to support them. Here's the link:

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Michael, thank you for that. I have already given several hundred dollars, but I will give some more. This is the start of something big, I think.

Stefan said...

Dear Professor Wolff, you wrote something that almost made me hit the ceiling:

"That means that almost the entire array of good jobs is closed forever to that seventy percent. They cannot hope to be doctors, lawyers, architects, college professors, high school teachers, elementary school teachers, corporate executives, or dentists, and their chances of being considered for a wide range of other jobs is small to nil. Wall Street, advertising, medical technicians, insurance company executives? Not likely."

That statement I find extremely biased. There are no "good jobs" for these people, you say. Well, I know plenty of people who truly enjoy their non-bachelor jobs. Some of them laugh at me in the summer, telling me they are happy they are paid to be outside in the sun.

I'm curious: how do you define "good jobs", and why do you think the jobs you mention are necessarily good jobs?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I used the term in the conventional manner, to refer to jobs with good pay, good benefits, safe working conditions, and a relatively greater degree of job security. There used to be a great many jobs in America with these characteristics that did not require a tertiary education or credential, but they have been disappearing for a generation now.

Stefan said...

Good pay and benefits are - to me - overvalued. The correlation between pay/benefits and the good life seems like a consequence of how be have been conditioned during our upbringing. There is no "natural" need for what a good paycheck and good benefits can give us. To some extend the same can be said about job security. Safe working conditions are the most valuable on that list, I think.
What makes people happy is more affected by other things. I have written a little about it a while back. If you are interested, here's a link: