Higher Education

Study, by kshelton

Dear Son,

I have no idea what to tell you about getting a good education, Son.  I am not sure anyone has a very good picture of what’s really going on.  When I was a teenager, there was a big push for as many people as possible to get a college or University education.  Guidance counselors and pundits claimed that there would be enough good jobs and a sophisticated enough market waiting for us that any degree would pay for itself, even with the absurdly high costs of tuition.

It turned out to be bad information to say the least.  Most of my generation came out of University with no work waiting for us.  You had university graduates with degrees that cost forty-, fifty-, and sometimes up towards a hundred- thousand dollars, who at best could get work as waiters, cooks, and farmhands.  We were over-educated and under-employed.  Even now, as “Generation-X” is moving into our forties and early fifties the only ones of us who have succeeded are the ones who improvised:  by starting businesses, by working many part time jobs, or – wisely – by redefining success so that it had little to do with work and money.

University and College education keeps getting more expensive, the debts get bigger, and the market for educated workers hasn’t improved that much.  Certain degrees seem only good to get you jobs as a government employee, if you are lucky enough to fill dead man’s boots at some bureau.  Some other degrees are only good for playing “activist” by encouraging people to think of how much of a victim they are.  And some degrees are just plain useless in the job market today unless you are planning or taking what you learn and turning it into a creative small business all your own, and for some fields, like philosophy, getting a formal education creates a big debt just before you go into a very risk business field, indeed.

For that matter, working for other people as a practice seems to be dying.  There just aren’t that many jobs period.  The days of employed work for huge corporations might just be coming to an end.  Today’s companies are small, offering very simple services that they often sell to other companies.

For example: in my day just a handful of big record* companies made recorded music:  they had talent agents, sound engineers, factories for making the records, studios for recording them, marketing experts to decide on the musician’s image, and promoters who would then make sure the music got onto the radio and television.  Today many musicians act as their own agents: they start a company for making music.  They hire another company that has a small sound studio and a couple of engineers to make the recording.  They hire a small web-mastering business to make them an official site.  They upload their music to music-sharing or selling websites like FiXT, Zune, iTunes, Google Play, etc. to sell them – each one a company of its own.  They hire a graphic artist company to make their logos, album art, and posters (assuming they don’t paint them themselves).  They might go online and promote themselves on social media, or they might hire a viral marketing company to do it for them.  And if they want to sell hard-copy music like CDs (by the time your old enough to read this, CDs will probably be a thing of the past) they pay an independent mini-factory to burn the discs and package them.

None of those companies will hire more than five or six people, most will just be one very busy person.  And all business is moving in this direction.  It may be that by the time you are an adult more people will be running their own hyper-corporations and small businesses than are employed.  For that kind of marketplace, it will no longer matter what degree you have – only what you know and can do.

And then, there is the matter of certification creep. Some big businesses and lines of work need special degrees and certificates you only need with those degrees.  Back in the 1980s or so, companies figured out that they could demand higher and higher education for the same work, which meant that you needed more education to get the same job as someone who was doing it a few years before.  Today many companies demand college diplomas for jobs that a high-school dropout could do, or Master’s degrees requiring seven years of University for a job that could be done by a community college graduate with two years of study after high-school.  Which means that the companies don’t have to teach new workers anything themselves (they used to train people on the job.)  It also means they have very smart people who are so deep in debt they will happily work at a boring job for a lousy boss if it is just “in their field”. It creates all kinds of abusive environments.  It makes some kinds of jobs just not worth it to go into.

It is clear today that post-secondary education does necessarily lead to a better life.  Especially when it breeds debt. I do intend to save up some of the cost of a University degree for you son, but I also intend to encourage you to think very carefully about what you want to do with your life.  I want you to find your strengths, explore, and learn about what interests you.  I won’t be putting you in an endless array of classes and after-school activities when you are a child, but I will take you to all kinds of museums, science centers, and camps.  I will also take you to job fairs, and show you how to learn about a field of work and make connections in it, so that you create your own luck when building a career for yourself.

In the end, I hope you will figure out something that will play to your strengths and that you will love doing, but that also will lead to a good income so that you can live life well on your own terms.  If that means getting a degree, we will make it happen.  If it means technical courses, an apprenticeship in a trade, or just seed money for a business, we will make that happen, too.

Education is a big investment, it should serve you well, and that means knowing ahead of time what you will get out of it.  I certainly will not encourage you, as I was encouraged, to just get a degree in whatever excited me, and trust that a good job in that field was waiting around the corner.

There is a tragedy in all of this, though.  The public education system of Canada – and almost every other country – does not do a very good job of teaching people critical thinking, ethical reasoning, or independence.  They just have too many students to teach, too little money, and far too many demands to make that happen.  While I see it as my duty as your father to make sure you learn logic, basic philosophy, emotional intelligence, and ethics, most people learn those skills in their first years of University or College. They learn them they are required to take at least a few classes in the Humanities to give them a rounded view of the world.  Many people who do not get a higher education do not learn the Art of Character or how to focus on living the Good Life.

I hope that we see a rise of other institutions like Anarchist schools and online communities to fill the gap as more people get wise to education.



*Have Opa show you his record collection some day  – just to see some recorded music from the days before computers.

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