Dec 222003

To understand the absurd seriousness with which Americans treat higher education, look at their cars. Jacques Steinberg’s The Gatekeepers, which trails a Wesleyan admissions officer and six supplicants for places in the class of 2004, documents this magic moment:

A week before his decision was due, he mailed off a $250 deposit and his official response to Wesleyan: a form that had “YES” preprinted in large type at the top. Jordan then went out to his mother’s car and pressed a clear Wesleyan decal against the inside of the back window.

Jordan’s palpable awe was correctly analyzed Paul Fussell, twenty years ago, in Class:

Americans are the only people known to me whose status anxiety prompts them to advertise their college and university affiliations in the rear windows of their automobiles. You can drive all over Europe without once seeing a rear-window sticker reading CHRIST CHURCH or UNIVERSITÉ DE PARIS. A convention in the United States is that the higher learning is so serious a matter that joking or parody are wholly inappropriate… One would sooner defile the flag than mock the sticker or what it represents by, say, putting it on upside down or slantwise, or scratching ironic quotation marks around “College” or “University.” I have heard of one young person who cut apart and rearranged the letters of his STANFORD sticker so the rear window said SNODFART. But the very rarity of so scandalous a performance is significant.

Fussell, notably, does not assign this behavior to a particular class, but to Americans in general. The college decal afflicts uppers, middles, and proles alike. And I sympathize: if I were about to piss away 150 large I might want a souvenir too. Status anxiety being what it is, I see only one answer to the college decal problem: stop sending kids to college.

College, as a phenomenon, has nothing to do with learning. It is possible to educate oneself at Ball State or at Harvard, or alone in one’s room for that matter, like young Jimmy Gatz, studying electricity from 6:15 to 7:15 every morning and needed inventions from 7:00 to 9:00 every night. It is equally possible not to educate oneself at any of those places. I should know: when Harvard turned me down I beat my breast and rent my garments. I then proceeded not to educate myself at my safety school, Carleton College, which served the purpose admirably, just as Harvard would have.

For certain subjects college facilities are useful; it’s tough to learn biology or chemistry without lab work. But Tiffany will be majoring in sociology, and Eustace in political science. They could read Erving Goffman and Tocqueville on their own time, and $150,000, apparently the going rate for four years at a top university, buys a hell of a lot of private tutoring. Perhaps the parents consider the money well-spent if it simply gets the brats out of the house.

No, college is about bragging rights, and seeing to it that your child has the best possible start in life. Children who attend prestigious colleges are understood, correctly, to have more career success. Here, however, we run into a little cause-effect problem. College admissions officers look for good grades and high test scores and a documented record of achievement; employers look for the same things. If no one went to college, or if the bottom went while the top worked instead, would the income disparity, ten years hence, really be any different?

The children themselves dispense with these niceties. Of the six in The Gatekeepers, each, for all of his oft-asserted independence of mind and spirit, decides to attend the most prestigious school he gets into (as determined by the U.S. News rankings, which the schools follow as assiduously as the children). The single exception is a girl who courageously spurns Harvard in favor of Yale.

Steinberg, who graduated Dartmouth in 1988, is not, himself, the best advertisement for the admissions officers of the Ivy League. (I include Wesleyan, which billed itself for a while as “The Alternative Ivy” and is still trying to live it down.) As a writer he is a diligent reporter. His special weakness is for the inconsequential appositive, for “color,” and The Gatekeepers is full of sentences like this: “For Terri, the mother of a ten-year-old girl and an eight-year-old boy, the idea of traveling to Asia for five weeks a year on Wesleyan’s behalf seemed like a perfect segue to the nearly three years she had spent in Swaziland for the Peace Corps.” Neither the girl nor the boy nor Swaziland ever reappears, for which, I suppose, a more generous reader would be grateful.

Causation gives Steinberg some trouble. One of the students he follows, Jordan Goldman, connives his way, Steinberg never says quite how, into writing lessons with the distinguished novelist Richard Price. Goldman’s best friend has cerebral palsy and is bound to a wheelchair. Steinberg writes, “In Freedomland Price had created characters based on both boys and made them brothers, because he knew how badly they wished they were brothers in real life.” Cosmic stupidity lurks behind that “because.” Early in the book his admissions officer, Ralph Figueroa, interviews at Goucher College and dislikes it because there’s no decent Mexican food. At the end Steinberg says that Goucher has finally passed “the Tortilla Test,” not by improving the food, but by appointing a Mexican-American dean. You begin to feel a little embarrassed for the guy on the one hand, and to wonder, on the other, what Dartmouth is letting in these days.

Imbecility has its uses, letting Steinberg tell what he sees without noticing that it directly contradicts what he believes. Steinberg and his admissions officer firmly believe in affirmative action, a conviction unshaken by the fact that the two obvious affirmative action admittees, an American Indian to Wesleyan and an inner-city Hispanic to Muhlenberg, both drop out freshman year. Ralph rhapsodizes constantly about the importance of “diversity” at Wesleyan; yet he never seems to encounter anyone, on or off campus, with politics to the right of Howard Dean’s. One applicant “was intrigued that so many students were vocal in support of various political causes,” as Steinberg puts it — I would say coyly, except it does not seem to have occurred to Steinberg that there is more than one kind of political cause.

The Gatekeepers also makes clear what admissions officers really do for a living, during the nine months of the year when they aren’t reading applications. They solicit. Ralph spends months on the road, traveling from high school to high school singing the praises of Wesleyan and encouraging applications that he has every expectation of turning down. More applications means more rejections, which means more “selectivity,” which means a higher rank in U.S. News. Nothing scandalous about that, but nothing edifying either.

Suspiciously little in the way of actual academics seems to go on at any of these colleges — especially Wesleyan, which resembles on Steinberg’s account less an institution of learning than a year-round Burning Man festival — but there is an awful lot of travel. The Cornell girl spends six months in a pueblo in Costa Rica and a month in Rome “to write and draw.” The NYU girl goes to Prague, Jordan Goldman goes to Oxford. Only the Yale girl stays put, leading rallies on behalf of her fellow oppressed Yalies, demanding that all college loans be forgiven. The old aristocratic Grand Tour was more effective and no more expensive.

So parents, that round-the-world cruise that you’ve been promising yourself? The money’s just sitting there, in Junior’s college fund; help yourself. It’s his year abroad or yours.

(Update: Craig Henry points to a study that shows a surprisingly weak link between college selectivity and income. Maybe I was too kind. James Joyner comments. Julie Neidlinger comments.)

  5 Responses to “Contra College”

  1. I suspect that the worship of the college degree–especially the "elite" college degree–is one of the major factors promoting increased class rigidity in the U.S.

    BusinessWeek just ran an interesting article on declining social mobility in the U.S. They mentioned one well-intentioned CEO who is concerned about the issue and is donating a lot of money for scholarships. But I susepct he could probably accomplish more if he would just sit down with his line executives and HR people and say these words: "Guys, before you put ‘college degree required’ on a job spec, think about what you are doing and why."

  2. My college girlfriend and I attended the same college and got identical grades and LSAT scores. Her major was economics and for her senior thesis she studied two related questions: (1) Did it pay to get a law degree, and (2) Did it matter what law school a person attended. She did in depth analysis. She factored in the three years experience lost in the job market, the cost of the education, regional factors, and just about everything anybody could possibly have come up with. There were three-dimensional graphs involved, not a small thing in 1979 when most of the computer and software technology we use every day didn’t exist. Her conclusion: It almost always pays to get the degree from no matter what law school.

    So, since we were both applying, I asked her for her list of schools. I figured she was now the world expert on the subject and would have figured out some cool "safe" schools. Her list of schools corresponded EXACTLY to one top ten list. I was not at all convinced that any of the top ten was "safe" for someone with our scores. When I asked her why she didn’t have a safe school listed she said, "If I don’t get into one of these, it doesn’t pay to go."

    So here you have someone who knows that it does pay to go somewhere else, but refuses to believe it. Since these rankings have a power beyond reason, does that make them totems?

  3. "So parents, that round-the-world cruise that you’ve been promising yourself? The money’s just sitting there, in Junior’s college fund; help yourself. It’s his year abroad or yours."

    Now, you tell us?

  4. I have no great respect for universities, but I don’t think that the autodidacts of the world will accomplish much either. A formal education does have some advantages:

    1. You get to see the kind of people who espouse certain kinds of belief. This cures the world of much foolishness, isolating it within the university campus. (Think of it as inoculation.)

    2. You need to be pushed hard to realize that pushing yourself hard is worthwhile. Of course, you can make it through college without being pushed hard, but usually you can also find those who will hold you accountable.

    3. Some readings are so absurd that they need to be dismissed immediately. Learning with no supervision increases the chance of small mistakes snowballing.

    I agree that we would be better off devaluing higher education, and perhaps valuing more trade educations. But I think that the number of people who can educate themselves well is few.

  5. As a Harvard grad (A.B. Music) and former Peace Corps volunteer (Mauritania), I feel qualified to say: it’s all bullshit. Paul Fussell was right. Class distinctions in America are largely based on education and not merit. Fortunately America obeys the bottom line more than most countries, and the bottom line doesn’t care whether you attended Brown or Podunk U. Show me the money — the fairest credo ever invented. I’m an unemployed drunk, so I haven’t been a beneficiary, but I feel good about it all the same.

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