The Heresy of Higher Education

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In the past week Chrysler and GM have announced plans to hire roughly 1000 engineers EACH between now and the end of 2012. Amazingly, this story is not exclusive to big automakers. Even smaller companies have been looking for new talent for as long as a year.

The real question now is whether the United States is capable of filling of this new demand for engineers, or if this country’s educational system has failed us completely.

For years the growing trend in higher education has been towards soft sciences. With business now being the most popular college major, other programs attracting increasing numbers of enrollees include precursors to professional degrees like law, medicine, and teaching. The arts have also become increasingly popular.

The real irony in the recent preference of college kids to study business is in the phrase so popular among businesspeople and business students: “It’s not what you know; it’s WHO you know.” So many kids are going to college for a degree in business, though abundantly aware that their connections will play a larger role in their success or failure than their education.

In many ways it appears that the American education system has gone completely wrong. Far too many people today, particularly in western societies, are feeling the pressure to go to college and get a degree. They are further incentivized by government grants and student loans, though they still graduate with a mountain of debt that usually takes the better part of a decade to repay.

What’s more, many graduates don’t even end up working in the field they studied. Even for those who do, a college degree is often unnecessary.

The old saying goes that “the world needs ditch-diggers, too.” Perhaps a more appropriate (and modern) characterization would be that the world needs people designing new backhoes.

Whatever the wording, the underlying fact remains. Over the past several decades the American dream has sadly changed. Where once the hope was for the opportunity to roll up one’s sleeves and work for a living, the increasingly popular fantasy is that of a free lunch.

Nowadays everyone wants to order people around from behind a big comfy desk without really adding to the equation. 

Ideas on where blame should lie differ, though the most reasonable theory I’ve heard is with the baby-boomer generation. It was under the baby-boomer generation that society began pushing all kids to go to college, claiming that a college degree gave you ‘keys to the kingdom;’ that the world would simply fall in your lap.

It was that thought process that transformed the American educational system. Suddenly the purpose of early education and high school shift from preparing kids to go out and make a living to preparing them for COLLEGE. An entire generation came out of high school with no real skill set to speak of, at least none that was learned in school.

At the risk of sounding ungrateful, the baby boomer generation has, for the most part, lived through the greatest periods of American prosperity, without a corresponding degree of work and effort. Their prosperity has been born on the backs of sacrifices made by the greatest generation before them, and fuelled largely by debt that will be inherited by those that come after, mine included.

The good news is that this country can change. Just because recent history has brought the United States down a wayward path doesn’t mean that we have to continue thereon. The problems with jobs and education in this country have developed largely in the past half-century. In the grand scheme of our cultural history, that’s hardly any time at all; and certainly nothing that can’t be fixed.

Admittedly, fixing the system will require this country to take some strong medicine, and there will likely be more unemployed and more without direction before all is said and done. The question now is whether we are willing to walk over coals to reach greener pastures, or if we’ll continue to play dumb and wander further down this broken trail.

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