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Saturday, August 22, 2020


In this third part of my reflections, I want to summarize some of the things I’ve said before about higher education in the United States. As I keep saying with evident embarrassment, I have not yet integrated these reflections into a coherent narrative but perhaps some of you reading this blog can take a step in that direction.

As I have many times observed, only 33% of adult Americans have four-year college degrees. Inasmuch as the “six-year graduation rate” is currently 55%, a little arithmetic tells us that perhaps 60% of Americans enroll in a higher educational institution offering a four year degree, which means that 40% do not even go that far beyond high school. Virtually all of the discussion I see and hear about higher education focuses on a very small number of elite institutions whose names are readily recognizable, but there are not 50 or 100 or 500 or 1000 bachelor’s degree granting institutions, there are 4500 or so in the United States. Any graduate of the least distinguished of these institutions is in that 33% that has a college degree. Let us try to keep this in mind as we go forward.

It was not always thus. The year that I applied to college – 1949, for admission in 1950 – only 5% of adult Americans (which to the statisticians means 26 years old or older) had bachelor’s degrees. So few high school graduates went on to college in those days that in New York City, where I grew up, little kids entered elementary school and graduated from high school twice a year, depending on whether their birthdays were closer to July or January. If you are a December baby, as I was, that meant that you either had to wait six months to go off to college or else accelerate somewhere along the way to pick up the extra half year. In those days of course the elite colleges were very difficult to get into. I went to Harvard, the most selective of all. Of the large group of young men who applied for admission to Harvard that year, only 75% of us got in. (That is not a misprint. It really was 75%, not 7.5%)

In those days, you had to have a college degree to become a doctor or a professor or even a high school teacher. You pretty much had to have a high school degree to become a lawyer although there were alternative ways of being admitted to the bar. If you think about it for a bit, it will be obvious that many, if not most, of the high paid highly selective elite positions in the economy, which today require an MBA, were filled by men (for the most part) who did not have college degrees. I am not talking about the 1890s. I am talking about the 1950s, after the war, with the economy booming. (It was in that time that the explosion of higher education took place, fueled in part by the G.I. Bill. The Academy, which had been dominated by private institutions, now saw public institutions expand dramatically and enroll a preponderance of the ever larger numbers of high school students going on to college.)

These days, we accept without question that what one learns in college on the way to earning a degree is somehow essential for satisfactory performance in the commanding heights of the economy. But that does not really seem plausible when you think about it because when I was young those same commanding heights were overseen by high school graduates. What first brought this to my attention in a personal way was the discovery that my first wife’s father, an extremely successful businessman who ended his career as a vice president of Sears Roebuck and Company, had never finished high school. No, he was not some phenom like Bill Gates. He was just a hard-driving reasonably talented guy who made his way all the way up the corporate ladder without the benefit of a BA.

There is no doubt that there are some things one learns in college that actually can be useful on the job. Math, chemistry, statistics, physics – that sort of thing. But literary criticism? Philosophy? Sociology? Economics? Not so much. What college does for a young man or woman is socialize him or her into a certain reference group of people and then sort them out as they try to make their way in a steeply pyramidal job world with too few really good jobs and too many lousy jobs. So long as that is the structure of the economy, some way has to be found to sort all those competent people into too few good jobs, but the sorting could just as well be done by calligraphy, as the classical Chinese found, or the writing of bad poetry, as was the case in Prussia when Marx was a young man.

Let us not get hung up on personal anecdotes. Almost 4 million Americans got BAs last year and I am sure that any story you want to tell about what can be gained from a college experience is true of at least several hundred thousand of them. But having spent all of my life in the Academy, I can testify from personal experience that if a serious life-changing engagement with the life of the mind were a prerequisite for a bachelor’s degree, that figure of 4 million would shrink rather dramatically.

Enough of this for the moment. Tomorrow I shall try to put these reflections into some sort of connection with one another.


LFC said...

My understanding of the old Chinese examination system is, roughly, that it sorted on the basis of knowledge of the Confucian classics. Calligraphy might well have been important, but there was a more substantive aspect, albeit one perhaps not all that directly connected in practice to the govt positions for which the examinees were competing.

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