June is an odd month in the life of a part-time college professor, and according to recent statistics, nearly 70% of us in all institutions of higher learning across the US are part-time.  That’s private, public, and for-profit; two-year, four-year; research and technical, on up to Ivy League.

The part-timer (and some full-timers too, it is true) does not have the clean break that many outsiders might expect.  Graduation is sometime in late May, but in a rural community college, enrollment something under 3000, the place doesn’t descend into academic quiescence only to bustle to life again with the promise of Labor Day.  For many — the Financial Aid people, the facilities people, student services, admins, the library staff — June tootles along in a mode not that different from, say, February.  Slightly quieter, and of course nothing like the rumble of activity during registration, or midterms, or finals, but the bills still have to be paid and the servers kept up and running and the floors waxed and the HVAC humming and yesterday’s papers in the library swapped for today’s.  This is one of the reasons why I bite my lower lip when I read or hear people outside of academics (I’m deliberately not going to use the word “academia” in this piece, as I believe it carries connotations) use the expression “real-life” to refer to everything outside of schools.  You know — real jobs, real-life situations, real-world experience — all euphemisms for the private sector.  I could supply some examples of this usage, but while they’d be accurate they’d be no more significant than my assertion that they exist, since I’d be getting them from what I think of as casual sources — letters to editors, internet forums, TV commercials. I’m too circumspect to try to make a case based on this kind of ephemera, so I’m trusting that if you know what I’m talking about you don’t need citation, and if you don’t know you probably don’t need the inquiry I’m about to make anyway because it’s outside your scope of concern.

This is not going to be a piece in which I justify the value of higher education in America.  That’s too big a task for June.  All I’d like to do is carve a sensible middle path through some of the popular arguments and one-size-fits-all answers that all too often show up in modern debate. (I even wish I didn’t have to use the word debate, but I do.  I would much prefer that the conversation regarding higher education were being conducted as an inquiry, since that’s my professional modus operandi, but I look and listen and read and can only truthfully if sadly report that most of it is conducted as debate and not inquiry.  I can tell the difference usually by a simple test — it’s inquiry if I end with more questions than when I started; it’s debate if I end with two relatively monolithic positions coalescing on either side, and when the expression of either position makes me bite my lower lip. That is symptomatic.)

If you’ve engaged with the topic at all, you might know some of the key phrases which spark debate and thus polarization.  I’d like to examine some of them.  I promise this is in good faith — my only prejudice is, I believe, an innocuous one and so general as to be inoffensive to all interested parties; to wit, Higher Education has an effect on America.  The inquiry, if sound, might lead us to ask more specific and meaningful questions such as “In what way?” and “Does that indicate actions that need to be taken?” — but that’s for the other end of the inquiry, not the top of it.  I’m hoping that no matter where you’ve previously positioned yourselves in earlier debates that you can ride along with me on that assertion — it matters.  Yes?  We’re OK?  Good, let’s go.

Item One: Higher Education Costs Money.   Unadorned like that, not a controversial statement, but to conduct a genuine and sincere inquiry we’ll have to do better than that.  I’ve heard phrases like “Higher education costs too much money.”  I’ve seen retorts that community colleges are affordable.  Mingled within are various opinions on the utilitarian value of the education at its price; and often a  point goes undistinguished: does it cost too much for the student?  The parent? The taxpayer?  Is the excessive cost a question of its retail price, or of its outlay and expenses?  Is profit involved, and, if so, where and for whom?  Also, another essential question of economics goes unasked — what kind of return on investment is (or ought to be) expected from a non-commodity commodity like “an education”? I would like to suggest that just these three variables — for whom, from whom, and with what expected return — renders the discussion almost impossibly complex.  For a recent veteran with a career idea in her mind and a recognition that, reasonable or not, a prospective employer wants certification from somewhere other than the US Armed Forces, the education has a specific value and, if she can afford it or be helped to afford it, she’s probably not going to spend much time debating whether it should cost as much as it does to whomever it will ultimately cost — herself, the community, the US debt.  On the other hand, to the suburban high school junior, who perhaps has taken his SATs in a blur of unconsidered expectation and careless obedience to What Is Done, when he sits down with pamphlets and applications and that damned essay to write, he can be forgiven for wondering if the personal expense to his parents or the potential for debilitating loans is Worth It.  But while I am using hypotheticals here, I want to hurriedly point out (so hurriedly in fact that I’ve split an infinitive in the process) that these two people are Not Typical.  More anecdote: I’ve been teaching in the same two-year college for going on eleven years.  I can see patterns and spot samenesses but even within my small and not terribly diverse sample I would hesitate to say that anything applied to “a lot” or “most” or “a majority” or anything other than the utterly reasonable and cautious “Some” — a categorical term which literally means at least one, and at most fewer than all.  And all due respect for the social sciences, but even when we do get numbers which are more descriptive than that, when we debate/inquire out here in Regular People Land we really never get any more precise than Some.  Anything else could be too easily contradicted — and as soon as it is, the debate appears to be over; at least points have been scored, and the inquiry grinds to a halt.  When that happens I always want to hold up a sign that says, Let’s Look At That in a Different Way.  (On the other side it, like Wile E. Coyote’s sign, says “Yikes!” but that’s for my personal entertainment only and in no way contributes to the inquiry.)

Out of a relatively homogeneous group such as my Summer Session A students, eighteen in all, with at least fifteen of them perched firmly on the underside of 24 years of age, and all living, at least at present, within the same 363 square miles, I still have spotted ten or twelve different attitudes about what higher education means to them personally.  Multiply that by my 27 semesters, spring, summer and fall, anywhere from one to four classes each, and you understand why I never start sentences with the phrase “All Students…” Of course, I’m lucky.   I get to deal with them in small chunks — anywhere from six in a Shakespeare seminar to 38 in an Intro to Philosophy — on the scale of all higher education in the US, small chunks indeed.  I have the good fortune to be able to discern among them instead of being forced to generalize.

Here’s an analogy: When my cousin’s husband opened a restaurant in the early 1980s, my aunt, his mother-in-law, was called upon to “make the gravy” which if you are an Italian-American in the tri-state area you know what that is.  My aunt Etta, faced with the industrial sized sauce pots, brought in her 5-quart dutch oven and proceeded to make a restaurant’s quantity of gravy, one “real” size at a time.  She knew that one does not merely multiply one’s experience times ten.  If she couldn’t do it with garlic, olive oil, and oregano, how dare I do it with people? How dare any of us?  As much of a Federalist as I tend to be, I recognize that some pots need to be flavored individually, and not on principle, because they are sovereign pots under the 10th amendment, but because I know that no two tomatoes, no two heads or even cloves of garlic from the same head are alike, and until I dip my spoon into each of them in turn I have no basis upon which to say, “Too much salt.”

Item Two: Higher Education Is Only Recently a Necessity, and An Artificial One At That, because either a) we’re not teaching them The Right Things in high school, or b) the Higher Ed industry, presumably with the connivance of the private sector (because otherwise I can’t see how the private sector could have been manipulated into a counter-intuitive belief, given their autonomy and real-world supply and demand structure) has told us that one needs a degree to get a job.

I don’t want to tackle possibility a). I am no expert on K-12 education; in fact I have no experience in it; I am not qualified to render even a biased opinion.  I know that doesn’t stop most people, but It Stops Me. I have many insufferable qualities, but I try very hard to keep Unwarranted Opinions (uwo) off the list.

But I think I can speak to b) at least carefully.  Again, starting anecdotally, I can think of plenty of people without college degrees whom I would recommend hiring for any number of jobs at all sorts of skill levels.  Sometimes it’s the nature of the job, and sometimes it’s the nature of the person, or the peculiar experiences of the person, and I think I can say honestly that with the exception of certain professions that need to meet Board or Association standards, and the unique exception of working for a degree-granting institution, the presence of a degree does not in and of itself render a person either more or less qualified than any other individual for a given job. If I may render an unwarranted opinion: <uwo> I think it is sheer expediency.  Faced with many applicants, the hiring body has to make a certain amount of arbitrary decisions, and a prejudice either for or in some cases against a college degree is as good as any other arbitrary criteria, and perhaps better than most.  Analogy again: production-managing for a small professional theater in the spring of 2004, faced with fifty resumes each for two male roles, our director, our stage manager and I used some of the most godawful rationales to cut the callback list to a manageable ten or twelve.  The private sector is therefore no more guilty of complicity when using a degree to screen applicants than it is when it uses software to scan resumes for certain phrases denoting experience — the only difference being that twenty hours with a laptop can enable one to put “Excel Pivot Tables” on a resume, and a bachelor’s degree involves considerably more time, effort, and of course money.  Since I have no idea how sincerely the hiring body believes that a degree assures certain standards, and I have a pretty good idea how they could quantify the twenty hours needed to master pivot tables, along with the immediate benefit therefrom; namely, that within a couple of weeks they’d have adequate pivot tables, naturally we should all question the parallel I have drawn.

Mac, the night watchman, is a prince among men; Johnny, the stable-boy, is a rat. — Philip Barry, The Philadelphia Story

In other words, we can’t go by class or other appearances, but we’re in a hurry and there’s fifty of them for every opening — well, some people are going to go conventional, opt for a rule about degrees and damn the torpedoes.  Expediency. </uwo>

Even if all that were true, what does the prospective college student do with this information?  Stand alone and try to bulldoze his or her way into a job by demonstrating the utter irrelevancy of the degree in this case?  Or perhaps join his or her voice to a public debate designed to convince America that the criterion of a degree is fundamentally flawed and arbitrary — or, even worse, a conspiracy to impoverish some in order to line the pockets of others?  Or does he or she, swallowing hard, pursue the degree and resent it — “I’ll get their damned piece of paper”?  Or might he or she, swallowing easily, become an acolyte of the belief system that there must be some value to this degree thing, or else I’m a chump, and I’m not a chump?

I would suggest that rare and valuable are those folks who do none of the above, but inquire long and hard with respect to the intrinsic benefit they and they alone, no one else, will derive from the education, and then choose to pursue it or not.  If there were some way to search for that, those should be the people who get hired.

<uwo> The only correct answer to the question, is a college degree valuable, is “It was [or wasn’t] for me.” </uwo>

A single piece of informed opinion seems called for here.  Over the years I have encountered the “All right, I’ll get your damned piece of paper” types and by and large they are only marginally better off after the damned paper than they were before.  It’s as if their systems reject the benefit, like a failed placebo because the patient recognized it as such.  A rare few are pleasantly surprised by the benefit and recognize it, sometimes years later.

Item Three: Filling a Pitcher versus Lighting a Fire. In Facebook Land, that’s not a brief heading introducing an extended inquiry. It’s (to repeat my phrase) The Entire Message. Education is not the recitation of, or acceptance of, a parade of free-flowing facts, but the inspiring of the love of learning for its own sake.  A lovely thought.  A worthy retort to anyone who ever asks me why I give open-book tests.  A delightful put-down to those of us who still believe in The Lecture.  But, like so many Facebook memes, so very gossamer-thin, upon examination.  Last week I wrote a jokey post about all the phrases my students have never heard of, and I got a lot of approval from folks in my generation and older; the consensus being “These kids don’t know anything.” That’s too simplistic, of course.  There’s stuff I’ve never heard of, and it’s definitely not because I’m Too Young.  Some of it is a product of the galloping pace of public awareness — today the BP oil spill, tomorrow a missing Malaysian plane, and who can keep up?  But I didn’t put on my joke list, because it is not a joke, the historical and literary tropes that I wish they knew.  I wish that I could have them understand the concept of a Faustian bargain without having to take forty minutes of class time for me to explain it.  I wish they understood the Cold War economy of the term “a knock at the door in the middle of the night” rather than having me spin an apparently irrelevant tale about totalitarian regimes and the importance of habeas corpus. I wish I could use names like Cotton Mather to mean New England Puritanism, William Faulkner to mean twentieth-century southern gothic, Franz  Kafka to mean an inexplicable, frightening occurrence; George Orwell to mean doublespeak, etc.  It’s not that I don’t want to take the time to light the fire, but it often turns out that I have to spend a lot of hours filling the pitcher with, “Hello, friends, this is Mr. William Shakespeare and he has some basic literary concepts for you to memorize before we can debate their accuracy, legitimacy, and persistence into the modern world.”  How can I debate the implications of the Cain and Abel story in terms of modern moral systems if I have to start by telling them who Cain and Abel were?  Maybe we should change the meme, and I’m sure Amazon would like the plug: “Education is the lighting of a fire, but books are needed to Kindle the flame.” Air can’t burn by itself, and critical thinking can’t be taught if they don’t have any idea what the simple thinking was in the first place.

Item Four: The Academy is an Ivory Tower of Out-of-Touch Lazy Entitled Too-Sensitive Marxists.  First point: given the raw material I usually have to work with, If I were the general public I would not be afraid of this harming students, since they’d first have to learn what “academic” meant, then “entitled,” then “Marxist,” and by that time we’d have lost them to the Cause, if there were in fact one, which there isn’t.  To the point that an idea can be dangerous even if the student has no idea what the idea is, I submit that I would rather have them learn a bad idea than no idea at all.  In short, I wish I held the public optimism that they could even grasp Marxism, let alone embrace it.

I’m being too harsh, but you get the idea.

Second point: There are ivory towers, but only a very select few of us live in them.  Research universities with their publication hierarchies and their teaching assistants and grant contentions and supposedly, according to some of my fellow bloggers here, a cult-like atmosphere into which young graduate students are indoctrinated like Moonies, do, I suspect, exist, but for every one of them there are ten community colleges or small publics or medium States or struggling privates where the faculty don’t get on the grant lists and who teach their own classes and mark their own papers and publish because they really want to. We teach mostly if not exclusively undergraduate students, and the real world laps up onto our beachheads at regular intervals, like a dirty tide. Money and childcare and commuting and hourly-wage jobs are the stuff of our students’ lives.  We may spend some personal time reading books about Postmodernist Gender Dysmorphia and the Modern Economy, but chances are good it will have a very subtle, behind-the-scenes effect on our curriculum, if any at all.  For instance, to beat an already dead horse, first we’d have to explain what Modernism was so that we could tell them what Postmodernism was, and explain gender normatives in order to show them gender dystypes, and Economy before we tackled Modern Economy, and there are only so many hours in the day.

In plain: I may well be out of touch, but I largely keep that information to myself.  It’s not like I can’t tell the difference.

My head hurts too bad to even have the “lazy entitled” discussion.  Back to simple categoricals: Some professors work hard.  Some professors are lazy.  Some professors are well paid.  Some professors are poorly compensated.  Some professors think the world owes them respect.  Some professors earn their own respect.  Refute any of those, I dare you.  Do you really want to be the person who claims to know something about EVERY SINGLE one of us?

Surprise, folks: just like it is for you out there in the Real World, some of us have it rough and some have it pretty good, and some of us like what we do and some hate it, and some of us are appreciated and some of us are over-appreciated and some of us are downright abused, and some of us could in fact survive in the Real World, and some of us couldn’t, and some of us don’t want to, and some of us don’t worry about whether we could or not, because it’s sort of like asking a person if he could hold his breath as long as Beowulf did when he went after Grendel’s mother’s underwater cave — his rightful answer is, “And why should I have to?  Is that in fact necessary right at this moment, for me?”

Last point, and I’ll make it terse: A true Marxist would find very few things more offensive than the idea of a person sitting around reading and writing and thinking about literature and philosophy. Ponder that.  And if you feel that is false, I might just recommend that you actually read some Marx. And if you don’t want to read any Marx, I would say, stop using the word Marxist to describe things.

It has been said that an education is like a jewel in the pocket.  It may not be exactly what we need  when we go out into the marketplace, for the vendors would rather have our coins and coppers than something that needed auctioning off. It may not always shine and adorn its owner, and she may need to keep it tucked away to prevent prejudice. It may in fact be a worthless bauble disguised as a rare treasure, designed to befuddle the masses.  But there in its owner’s pocket, it is solid and heavy and real, and it means something.  The trick is, you have to have one of your own to to know what exactly that something is.