Who should go to college?
I went to the post office a couple days ago. I was surprised to notice that the postal worker who helped was reading Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century, a collection of essays by historian Tony Judt. We chatted a bit about Judt, about the brilliance of his writing, about the lecture I saw him deliver as if a prophet in front of a captive NYU audience.
But the experience left me thinking less about Judt and more about the postal worker. My elitism, both conscious and unconscious, leads me to assume that most “blue-collar” workers are less educated, and by extension, less intelligent than me and the people that populate my typical social circles. I also don’t usually imagine them to have interests extending beyond their personal lives, except for maybe those of sports and religion and some political issues that affect their incomes.
This is of course very wrong of me, and I want to extinguish it: my elitism, my snobbery, whatever you want to call it. And this snobbery is not really based in fact, as this New York Times article shows, in 1999, 15% of mail carriers had bachelor degrees. Some economists today are arguing that college educations are wasted on these people, or rather, that these people have wasted their own time and money on college degrees that they are not really “using.” They advocate vocational education, pre-professional training and other forms of learning that are more practical and lead more directly to employment.
Some dissenting views, however, noted that college is not only a path to career and warned of “overlooking the intangible benefits of a college experience,” which can lead to increased general knowledge, “aesthetic appreciation,” to new ways of thinking, to broadening horizons. College degrees also increase health, social standing and make people more informed voters. Those who wrote letters in response to this article also pointed to the dismal state of high school education in the United States.
I’m torn here. On some level I do think too many people go to college, that many people go and can’t really afford it, don’t end up with jobs that make the expense worth it, don’t finish, can’t hack it, don’t care if they do go, and all the other problems the article described. On the other hand, I’m old-fashioned, I value knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and I think that is something that everyone should not only be entitled to, but is something that our society should promote and encourage.
I wonder, though, if college became less important, and high school education improved dramatically, if the stigma of not having a college degree, and the stereotypes associated with jobs that don’t really require college degrees would go away, or at least lessen. And maybe this will prevent me from making stupid assumptions about people, though really I should do that on my own.