Education is a cult


It’s late 2012, when I walk down the train station and find myself greeted by the sight of at least a dozen girls of upper-middle class background in identical clothing, hair coloured in various shades of blonde, aspiring members of a local student fraternity. What’s supposed to draw attention however, are the oversized diapers they’re wearing, complete with fake stains of feces and urine.

Living in a nation that was at the peak of its education bubble back then, this didn’t surprise me as much as it otherwise might have. I was used by then to seeing guys my age in expensive suits, swimming in the canals while a group of guys on shore yelled orders at them through a megaphone. I memorized the incident, not because it shocked me, but because it serves like nothing else as a painfully visible symptom of an unspeakable taboo: Education is a farce.

At the end of every year, a new group of graduates prostrates before their faculty staff, as one kid or another gives a lame speech on what kind of hopeless incompetents they were before they attended college and how they are now ready to become productive members of society. It is not unlike a cult, where members see themselves as worthless and hopeless, all of their value derived not from their inherent qualities but rather from the cult they joined.

Education is a sacred cow and Malala is our generation’s Mother Theresa. If there is a problem in our society, we expect that it will be addressed through education. Problems as diverse as teenage pregnancies, unemployment, overpopulation, homophobia and mass sexual assaults on the streets can all be solved most effectively through education, or so we are told. It remains a mystery to me how people ever managed to get by before we all went to college.

I’ve heard that many people, typically the babyboomer generation, remember college not as a time they spent in limbo memorizing a variety of facts they’d never use again, but rather, as the greatest time of their lives. This raises the question of what these people consider to be important in life.

If you’re into having meaningless sex with people you don’t care about while intoxicated, or doing fake work that’s stuffed into a shelf as soon as soon as it is graded because you’re presumed to be too incompetent to do real work, then college must be a terrific place to be. For much of my social circle however, college appears to have been a time of ennui, confusion and depression. This is the other side of the story that’s heard less commonly.

Perhaps college seems great to people, because the period that follows it for which college sets you up is such a miserable one. Because you have to spend four years of your life hiding your working class background by using borrowed money to participate in the opulent lifestyle of your peers, you’re left with a big debt to pay back. You can’t combine socially mandated alcohol abuse and factoid memorization with a part-time job, unless you’re doing a worthless major perhaps.

If you’re at the age where you attend college, you have dreams about the future. You once wanted to be a superhero or a princess, but by now you have become slightly more realistic. Now you want to be a historian, a fashion designer, a creative writer, a journalist, a psychologist, a video game developer, or something along those lines. In all likelihood, even that’s not realistic, so you will end up doing something else, something that HR decided requires a four year college degree to filter out applicants, yet never allows you to use any of the information you spent most of your youth painstakingly memorizing.

If you’re a guy, perhaps you will do tech support or customize software for big corporate clients. If you’re a woman, perhaps you work in human resources or answer the phone and welcome visitors. If you haven’t given up yet on whatever ambition you had, you might be doing some internship somewhere. You’re promised an actual paid job in the future that will allow you to pay back your debt, but it probably won’t happen.

If you have working class parents who meant well, they probably told you that you can do whatever you want as long as you work hard. They didn’t set out to mislead you. They had mediocre jobs themselves, that left them feeling unfulfilled and drained them of their mental energy. Hence you saw them sit in front of the television every afternoon and were impatient to leave the demotivating atmosphere you grew up in, trading a house you have to share with family for a concrete box you share with miserable drunks. They hoped your future would be better, because that’s the only thing that kept them going.

I’ve written this article too late, because by now, much of the above is becoming common knowledge. Most people now realize that what you’re told about your job prospects after college is a fraud, pushed by colleges that hope to keep their staff employed by drawing in ever more shmucks. If it was not a fraud, we’d have embassies around the world the size of Vatican city, as practically every soft major seems to promise to its students that you “can work at an embassy”. Another tip for young people: If your major claims that its graduates can be found in all sorts of jobs, you’ll be last in line regardless of where you apply.

What hasn’t been lost yet however, is the fetish for education that our society has, even as we come to acknowledge that college education is no longer a guaranteed ticket for upward social mobility. College education is still seen as installing virtues in our people, as being part of a process that people have to go through to become model citizens.

As the college bubble began to inflate further and the genuine value of a degree outside of its societal associations continued to decline, the explanations for why everyone needs to go to college became ever more broad and ridiculous. “College teaches you how to think critically.” “College teaches you how to learn.” Apparently people have to spend four years of their adult lives figuring out how to think and learn. Why this has to cost tens of thousands of dollars a year and how binge drinking, beer pong and college sports matches contribute to this goal is still somewhat shrouded in mystery for me.

College to me, appeared to be a haven of hypocricy. I have to think back of the far-left Poli sci student of bourgeois background, who scoffed at her roommate, because he’s an adult man who works in a store. Or, perhaps I should mention the son of a college professor, who laughed at me after he asked me what my parents do for a living. It is today more than ever, a playground for the crotch-fruit of our bourgeoisie, where they are instructed in today’s socially fashionable ideas they will have to parrot if they do not wish to be at the centre of tomorrow’s social media scandal.

Does college promote or discourage social mobility? The answer isn’t as clearcut as you might think. According to one estimate in the United States, 44% of children from bottom quartile income families with a 1200-1600 range SAT score graduate college, compared to 52% of children from top income quartiles with 800-999 SAT scores.1 Part of the problem is that students from poor families have a much greater chance of dropping out. Among the bottom quartile, 29% attend college and 9% complete college. Among the highest quartile 80% attend college and 54% graduate from college.

In the United States, trends like affirmative action for minorities in combination with legacy admissions for WASPs ensure that poor whites and asians stand little chance at the most prestigious colleges. It’s clear that in the United States, some simple changes to the system would make the system more meritocratic, but it’s not designed to be meritocratic, it’s merely designed to appear as such.

To some degree however, these are factors that are inherent to college. It’s a universally observed phenomenon that gifted students tend not to graduate college. In Canada, the estimate is that a mere forty percent of gifted children will complete an undergraduate degree or pursue graduate studies.2 In the Netherlands, a mere sixteen percent of gifted children will ever graduate from a university.3 In other words, even when you try to incorporate college into a meritocratic system, you’ll probably fail to do so.

It has to be noted here that even if graduation rates were perfectly equal for different social classes, it wouldn’t leave us with a meritocratic system. Why is that? The poor appear prone to select different majors than the rich. Wealthy parents understand what degrees are useful and the necessity of building a social network with other rich kids, whereas poor parents typically have no such idea. They struggle to tell apart a bullshit degree from a useful one and would rather not see their children dragged along to drinking societies.

Why do children from poor families fail to graduate college? Lack of wealth is one factor, but there are other factors involved too. One problem is the inevitable cultural difference the children encounter, they end up fitting in nowhere. Their accents stand out, their views on society may be too “cynical”. They find that their peers are buying houses and cars, while they live frugally in an effort to afford college.

Children from poor backgrounds intuitively seem to want to see their work sustain society, whereas children from wealthier backgrounds intuitively want to mingle with the right crowd and feel in charge. Volunteer for a small local charity if you want to understand how these processes work out. Volunteers from poor backgrounds will generally seek to be physically active, volunteers from wealthier backgrounds will want to sit around discussing things and invent new titles for themselves.

I doubt this has ever been scientifically investigated, but I can think of different potential explanations for this phenomenon. Children with poor parents grew up seeing parents who were physically active. Fathers fixed broken ceilings, plumbing and machines at home. Mothers made food, necessary purchases, cleaned the house and helped the children.

Children with wealthier parents didn’t see their parents too often. The parents hired people to do necessary work for them and spent a lot of time socializing with other wealthy people in formal settings. Thus we may expect children to be intuitively attracted to the tasks their parents carry out.

In addition, we have to note that a high level of intelligence does not per definition have to be correlated with the correct mindset needed to be part of the managing class. Children who lose the genetic lottery may be intelligent and interested in physical labor, or not so intelligent and interested in socializing and ordering other people around.

Now that we’ve established that college isn’t per definition meritocratic and probably can’t be reformed into something meritocratic, the question becomes what we should do about it. My suggestion would be to do away with the pretense of having a meritocratic society and instead build a society where most people feel as if they are in the right place. How would we go about this? It seems to me that we would have to deindustrialize our society on a large scale.

This would then allow us to have a society where most people would have to be physically active throughout the day, rather than having to compensate for a sedentary lifestyle in a gym. A low to moderate level of physical activity spread out throughout the day would be ideal. Nobody ever suggests that the conflict between full scale employment and automation has to be resolved by favoring employment at the cost of automation, but this to me appears to be the best solution.

The Japanese banned firearms to preserve their feudal society, why can’t we ban technologies that threaten labor that psychologically satisfies us? We might not miss the coal mines and the weaving sheds, but certainly there must be people who miss sailboats, goat herding and theatre performances. If you respond to this suggestion by declaring that we can’t reverse the tide, it merely illustrates that technology is a force outside of our control that can just as easily make our lives worse as it can make them better, which proves that continual technological progress is a tremendous danger.

I don’t personally agree with the value of meritocracy. I think social stratification itself is a major problem. A life spent bossed around by others is as miserable as a life spent ordering other people around. One man loses his freedom, the other his camaraderie and participation in the physical world. Still, it should be simple to make our society more meritocratic.

The first step would be to ban employers from asking for college degrees. Instead, employers should administer tests. If your job requires a non-specified four year college degree, certainly you should be capable of coming up with a test to test whatever knowledge learned in college is necessary for the job. Employers in the US seem wary however, because of Griggs v. Duke Power co, a supreme court decision that would obviously have to be reversed.

The problem of course is that most employers don’t demand a four year college degree because of the knowledge imparted, but rather to cut down on applicants and be left with dependable candidates from a similar background. Businesses want employers with college degrees and bourgeois backgrounds for the same reason Chinese companies hire white guys in suits to give speeches: It generates trust and the appearance of competence. Businesses can’t admit to any of this as they’re caught in a paradox, having both a social obligation to be diverse and a financial obligation to project a bourgeois image.

There is another problem here however, which is that governments have a motive to send all their young to college. College generates the illusion of social mobility, which keeps minorities and the poor complacent. In addition, it keeps the young off the labor market for four years and generates employment for staff, while encouraging students to continue spending money through large loans. The typical government won’t just throw money into the black hole that is education, it will figure out how to teach its public to demand ever more education.

This is all nice and well, some of you might say, but at the end of the day we’ll still need doctors, engineers and scientists, all skills you won’t learn by yourself through a library subscription. To preempt the otherwise inevitable remark, let me make clear that I’m not suggesting we could abolish colleges tomorrow. Could we reduce college attendance by 90%, with no harm to our way of life? Probably.

Those jobs that quite clearly do require a college degree tend to be excessive in ways people fail to understand. Healthcare is subject to diminishing returns, much of our money in healthcare is spent prolonging the lives of people whose quality of life has dropped so much that we are doing them a disservice by keeping them alive.

Much of our disease burden could be eliminated by focusing more on preventative care instead, by improving the quality of our diet for example. The explosion in psychiatric care costs is largely brought on by our modern excessively stressful lifestyle. Considering that 49.6% of medical students suffer burnout symptoms and 11.2% are suicidal, the medical sector effectively generates its own customers.4

The question that becomes important to ask by now is: When does this bubble finally burst? A variety of apocalyptic scenarios could be imagined that would make college education obsolete, but if business as usual continues, the cause of death of the college industry will be Moravec’s paradox, a problem that our policymakers seem to be completely unaware of.

What’s Moravec’s paradox? Moravec’s paradox is the observation by artificial intelligence researchers, that computers are much better at high-level reasoning than at low-level sensorimotor skills. In English, the computer isn’t going to steal Joe Sixpack’s job, it’s going to render our upper class unemployed.

We can teach computers to beat us at chess, gamble in the stock market, decide on medical procedures or issue financial advice much better than we can teach them to deliver mail, clean a toilet, recognize a person’s face or figure out the type of fabric you have in your hands. This makes perfect sense, as our bodies evolved over billions of years to carry out physical tasks, while our cognitive skills evolved relatively quickly.

Contrary to what you might think, you excel at physical tasks, you’re rather poor at anything that requires us to think. The same goes for all humans, including our policymakers who seem to have thought that computers would create numerous highly skilled jobs. What they have created is an overeducated generation, that has taken over the values of the bourgeoisie but will be unable to take over their jobs.

The white collar jobs our college graduates hope to take over tend to lead to depression and bourgeois ennui. A college educated womb has for this reason, long been known to be a barren one. Banks still need employees, but an autistic Phd graduate who programs trade algorithms for a living does not quite lend himself as a source of aspiration, whereas the men yelling orders on Wall Street still had a certain romantic appeal. Perhaps we should thus be thankful to computers, because they have saved us all the burden of suffering a bourgeois existence.

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