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Back to School

[A Vintage Via Meadia essay originally published two years ago, republished and retweaked as a new cohort of first year students tries to figure out how to get the most out of college — and a new cohort of parents tries to figure out how to pay for it.]

The anxious emails from students are hitting my in-boxes once again: What time are office hours? Are places in the seminar still available? Where can they get advance copies of the syllabus?

I don’t have answers to these questions yet; give me another 48 hours and I will.

Another school year is ready to begin, and for the first time in decades I will be teaching full-time.

Unfortunately, I’m returning to a profession in crisis.  Over at Instapundit, Glenn Reynolds has been blogging up a storm over what he calls the ‘bubble‘ in higher education.  Parents and students are shoveling more and more cash into degrees that, Glenn and many of those he links to warn, are not likely to pay off.

They are, unfortunately, right.  The bubble analogy is dead-on for some parts of the educational world.  In an age of outsourcing and technological change, a law degree (even from a ‘name’ school) is no longer going to be the kind of ticket to affluence that it once was.

A view of Bard College (Wiki).

More generally, the upper middle class benefited over the last generation from a rising difference between the living standards of professional and blue collar American workers.  This is likely to change; from civil service jobs in government to university professors, lawyers, health care personnel, middle and upper middle management in the private sector, the upper-middle class is going to face a much harsher environment going forward.  Automation, outsourcing and unremitting pressures to control costs are going to squeeze upper middle class incomes.  What blue collar workers faced in the last thirty years is coming to the white collar workforce now.

Yet as their financial prospects darken, students’ educational costs are exploding.  Like the health care system, the educational system is being overwhelmed by rising costs and rising demand.  And as misguided government policies contributed to the real estate bubble by artificially inflating demand, government programs are burdening students with unpayable loans and contributing to relentless and unsustainable inflation in school costs.

And so, dear students, welcome back!  Your generation is going to have dig its own way out of the hole my generation has dug for you (thanks for the Medicare, kids, and sorry about the deficit!), but here are a few tips that may help you get the best out of your college years.

1.  The real world does not work like school.

Life in school is life in bureaucracy.  You follow the rules, do what you are told, and rewards follow.

The real world was never very much like that, but the parts of the real world that look most like school (like for example law firms, universities and government and private sector bureaucracies) have their heads on the chopping block.  By the time today’s students are in their forties (and that is MUCH closer than you think, kids), most of those organizations are going to morph into something very different.  Or they will die.

Inmates who spend a long time in prison become institutionalized; they adapt so well to the conditions of prison that they can no longer function in the free world.  Something similar can happen to students.  From age six or even younger, students are immersed in a predictable world that runs by the rules.  Then you get out of school — and expect that this pattern will continue.  If you go to a good law school and do well, you will become an associate at a successful firm.  Do your job well, work hard, obey the rules and wash behind your ears and in due time you will make partner.

That’s the old system; the new one won’t work that way.  Creativity, integrity and entrepreneurial initiative will pay off; following the old rules and hoping for the old rewards is a road to frustration.  You have to fight the tendency of the educational system to turn you into a timeserving baby bureaucrat, following the rules and waiting for the inevitable promotion.

As you go through college, think about ways you can fight the pressures of institutionalization.  Work or volunteer — not just for money, but to keep your hand in the real world.  Live off campus.  Start a business.  Shake things up.

2.  Most of your elders know very little about the world into which you are headed.

Your parents and your teachers want what is best for you (with the usual regrettable exceptions), but in many cases they don’t understand the challenges you will face.

Especially for those of you who come from white-collar families, the kinds of careers that your parents have had may not be around for you.

Even if you go into the ‘learned professions’ you are going to have to be entrepreneurial and flexible.  Technology is going to rock your world and economic changes and upheavals are going to change the rules on you over and over.  This is not how the  knowledge professions (law, medicine, teaching, the civil service) used to work.  In the old days, you got the right degree from the right school, got a job with a good employer and rose steadily through the ranks through a long and increasingly distinguished career.  At the end you had a safe pension.

Almost certainly, this is not going to happen to you.  At times, your career is going to feel like Eliza’s run for freedom across the half-frozen Ohio river — jumping from ice floe to ice floe with the hounds of hell behind you.  It won’t be all bad; there are rewards to this kind of life as well as risks, but you are going to need a different outlook on life and a different set of skills to cope.

Most faculty members, especially the tenured ones, have worked  and lived in a world that is passing away.  In many cases it’s hard for them to imagine the kind of lives you will live, and you need to keep this in mind.  Even if you want to make a career in education, you are likely going to have to deal with an environment in which tenure is disappearing, universities are shedding overhead, and both public and private universities face tough revenue squeezes.  Some especially vulnerable institutions (like mainline Protestant seminaries) are closing in droves; turmoil is likely to spread because the current financial path of the higher ed industry is as unsustainable as Medicare and the federal debt.

3.  You are going to have to work much, much harder than you probably expect.

I’m sorry to bring you bad news, but your generation faces the toughest competition any American generation has ever known.

Your competition isn’t sitting in the next library carrel.  Your competition is in China and India – and your competition isn’t hanging out at frat parties or sitting around watching sitcoms with dorm-mates.  It isn’t getting stoned and it isn’t putting its energy into chasing the opposite (or apposite) sex.  Your competition isn’t taking lots of courses on gender studies; it isn’t majoring in ethnic studies, or (unless it is planning to go into movie making) the history of film.

Your competition is working hard, damned hard, and is deadly serious about learning.  There’s nothing written in the stars that guarantees Americans a higher standard of living than other people.  Those of you who spend your college years goofing off in the traditional American way are going to pay a much higher price for this than you think.

4. Choosing the right courses is more important than choosing the right college.

Choosing the right college is over-rated.  Just about every college in the United States has more talented and interesting students than you will have time to get to know in four years.  At every college in America you will not be able to take all the great courses from great faculty, read every worthwhile book in the library, or participate in all the rewarding extracurricular activities.

Choosing the right courses, on the other hand, is under-rated.  In the old days you could take a lot of silly courses and guts and get away with it.  But your generation is going to have to scramble and you need every edge you can get.

Your generation can’t afford to throw these four years away; choose your courses carefully and seriously. Everybody has different needs; aspiring movie makers and aspiring physicists aren’t going to take all that many classes together, but there are some basic concepts that make sense.

5.  Get a traditional liberal education; it is the only thing that will do you any good.

Following this advice will be hard; a liberal education is no easy thing to get, and not everybody wants you to have one.  However, in times of rapid change, it is paradoxically more useful to immerse yourself in the basics and the classics than to try to keep up with the latest developments and hottest trends.  You can be almost 100% sure that the hot theories making waves in academia today will be forgotten or superseded in twenty years — but fifty years from now people will still be reading and thinking about the classic texts that have shaped our world.  Use your college years to ground yourself in the basic great books and key ideas and values that will last.

For the same reason, don’t worry too much about getting specific skills at this stage.  You are going to keep learning new skills all your life and you are going to find many of your skills obsolete as time goes on (when I was a kid I was very good at operating something called a mimeograph machine).  What you want to do now is to develop your ability to learn.

It’s a lot of work, but don’t panic; you are not going to get this all done in four years.  Becoming educated is a lifelong project; you can’t turn your mind off and stop reading books when you finish college and expect to get anywhere.  Here are some tips to help you get started.

First, getting a liberal education means you have to achieve literacy in math and at least in one science – and come to grips with the scientific method.  I’d recommend biology as the science you should spend the most time with; this is probably the science that’s going to be changing the world most radically during much of your life — and since you need some chemistry to make sense of it, you will be getting a grounding in two disciplines rather than just one. [I should note that many readers make a plug for chemistry here and some recommend physics. Two sciences is better than one and three better than two; you aren’t going to be a specialist in everything but getting a basic scientific education really is an indispensable part of a liberal education in our time.]

Second, study the basic ideas, debates, books, people and events of the western world – with special attention to the Anglo-American subset of the western tradition.  You can’t understand other people’s cultures and traditions until you understand the one that surrounds you.  Art, literature and music are part of this.  Don’t neglect them.

Third, study the United States: its history, regions, culture, politics, literature and economy.  You would be surprised how many highly educated people have never seriously studied (or traveled much in) their own country.  Don’t make that mistake – and study the parts of the US you don’t know.  If you are a southerner, study the north.  If you are from the Midwest, study the two coasts; if you are coastal, study the interior.  If you are white, study African-American history.  Don’t just study this in class.  Seek people out in your school from different backgrounds and get to know them.

Fourth, study at least one language and at least one culture that is alien to you.  Pick a language that opens the door to a big world: Mandarin, Hindi, Arabic, German, the Romance languages (if you get really good in one of these last you will have a surprisingly easy time dealing with others).  Beyond the language study, take a cluster of courses that give you at least an overview of one non-western civilization.  (This works better than taking a scattering of unrelated electives on many different cultures.)  The purpose of taking a language today has less to do with learning to talk to foreigners than it used to; foreigners seem to be learning English faster than we are learning their languages and computer translation software is likely to make reading texts in other languages much easier in your time.  But learning a foreign language is still a great way to explore another world: different languages organize the world differently and to learn a language is to learn a new mental map.

Fifth, learn to write well.  This paradoxically is going to be more important than ever for the next generation.  I can’t tell you how many editors at how many famous magazines have told me over the years that most professors and academics simply cannot write, and bemoan the immense amount of time they must devote to impose some kind of intellectual structure and comprehensible prose on the crabbed drafts they get from, often, fairly well known people.

This will not last.  Publications are not going to be able to continue paying editors to spin straw into gold; if you want to have a public voice in the next generation you are going to have to learn to write well.  This is a hard skill to acquire, but it can be taught.  Most schools don’t do this well; it is expensive and academics generally don’t value clear and attractive prose writing as much as they should.  This is important enough that I would recommend you use it as a factor in choosing a college, but for those of you already enrolled, make a point of seeing what your school offers in this area.

Finally, unless you are following up on an interest that is already a deep and passionate one, try to take courses taught by great teachers.  The main purpose of an undergraduate education isn’t to polish up your knowledge and finish your learning.  It is to launch you on a lifetime quest for wisdom and understanding.  You want professors who can help you fall in love with new subjects, new ideas, new ways of investigating the world.  The courses that end up mattering the most to you will be the ones that start you on a lifetime of reading and reflection.

6.  Character counts; so do good habits.

One of the weaknesses in contemporary college education is that many teachers and administrators don’t think enough about the need that students have for moral education: reflection on right and wrong, the development of good habits that make good decisions easier to make and easier to stick with, a healthy spiritual grounding that can see you through the storms of life, and the kind of self knowledge that can only come from a life of serious moral engagement and thoughtful reflection.

Character and spiritual grounding are going to count much more in the tumultuous, uncertain environment that is approaching than in the more stable and bureaucratic world of the past.  It is very hard for a tenured professor or a career civil servant to screw up so badly that he or she loses a job.  A messy love life, alcohol or substance issues, poor financial management skills, a lack of candor in professional dealings: in structured environments people can often go very far even if they are dragging problems like these behind them.  But in a world in which employment is less secure, competition tougher, and your reputation for integrity and productivity are the most important assets you have, character is going to count.  More, the ups and downs of life and the risks you will have to run to build your career mean that you will need to be grounded spiritually to stay on an even keel.  Life is going to be scary; sometimes it will be hard.  Where will you find the strength to keep going when the path ahead looks dark?  How will you be able to renew the optimism, the ability to take risks, and maintain your self confidence and stay creative in a world of rapid and sometimes unfair change?

There may be chaplains at your school who can help you with this side of life.  There may be courses on personal ethics; there may be faculty who you feel have something to teach as mentors and role models.  There are other students who have qualities that you wish you had — and there are student groups who read, pray, meditate and act together to help their members grow.  Seek out the people, the communities, the experiences that can help you grow.  College should be a time of spiritual as well as intellectual and career development and growth and you will be missing an essential element of your education if you do not engage with the world of faith and religion during your college years.

7.  Relax.

If you take this advice, you may still come out of school with too much debt — and the fields that interest you may be hard to break into, and the financial rewards less than you may have expected.  But you will be able to cope: you will have the education, the habits and the character traits that will enable to you find new opportunities and new careers even as old ones fade away.  And whatever happens to your bank account, your journey through life will be a rich and rewarding one if you come out of college with a good liberal education and a lifelong love of learning.

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  • Saki

    Mr. Russell this is invaluable advice. You have articulated the new ground realities very well, and quite comprehesively. This should be a must read for graduating seniors and college freshmen.

  • Saki

    Just one more note– on your political comment about “misguided government policies” and “government programs” that burden systems—-no government on earth can have ideal policies or foolproof programs. Our society has many powerful interest groups that can pervert or prevent the proper application of even the best of policies or programs. Ultimately, the checks and balances of society ensure no one group can have an autocratic hand. To ensure their future, the next generation should endeavor to be a watchdog not just for government policies and programs, but all movers and shakers of the society— besides taking your advice and aiming for a balance in education, body and spirit.

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