The Cost and Value of Returning to America’s Never Never Land - Peter Pan Syndrome Week on BTR


photo courtesy of StayRAW

Much of what will be discussed this week at BreakThru Radio (“Peter Pan Week”) will orbit around a not-so-rare complex in American society today. Many people just don’t want to grow up. That being said, it is fair to ask, why would they? Being a kid is fun. Being a teenager is arguably more fun. And being a college student, well, isn’t that the most fun anyone could ever have?

The American advertising industry has built our entire society on the foundational ideology that life peaks in college. Young, beautiful, carefree, and bound by nothing, the college-aged American is what all media informs us is the epitome of happiness. That being the case, why are more of us not pursuing it at a later age? Is it the environment or the age that propels this notion of perfected living? Without doubt, college has become the incubus for social development and the vehicle that propels one into adulthood. That being said, the question we should be asking (and many have) is: “Should that be college’s primary function?” Or, put another way: “Is getting a university degree part of a measurement in intelligence, a conditioning for life as a contributing member of society, or training for expertise in a vocational-specific field?”

In June of this year, I read an article in The New Yorker by Louis Menand (“Live & Learn: Why We Have College”, June 6, 2011) that discussed this very topic. Broken down into three theories, Menand questions the value of some recently published critical literature on higher education while at the same time offering his own opinions on its worth. The first theory argues that college is an attempt (or at least was designed as such) at the process of sorting out some form of an intelligent pecking order. But is this actually possible? Can intelligence be determined as to provide an order from greatest to least? I would argue that it cannot. Instead, what it is doing is attempting to “get the most of its human resource.”

The second theory goes something like this: “In a society that encourages its members to pursue the career paths that promise the greatest personal or financial rewards, people will, given a choice, learn only what they need to know for success.” While this theory may be the most practical, it is also the most cynical. Unfortunately, for those who value knowledge, understanding, and truth over materialism, they would balk at the idea that there is no incentive to acquire the knowledge and skills important for life as an informed citizen, or as a reflective and culturally literate human being.

College shouldn’t be all to blame here. Envy, greed, and an exceptionally successful capitalist society are more at the heart of the matter. As Menand points out, college can do all it can to expose future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, regardless of the careers they end up choosing. In performing this function, one would hope that college also socializes well-developed citizens. “It takes people with disparate backgrounds and beliefs and brings them into line with mainstream norms of reason and taste.”

The third and final theory Menand offers, is that advanced economies, such as ours, “demand specialized knowledge and skills, and, since high school is aimed at the general learner, college is where people can be taught what they need in order to enter a vocation.” This last theory helps explains the growth of the non-liberal education sector and the high demand for majors in things like software engineering, programming, finance, and economics.

What seems to be amiss here is how all three theories have, at their center, a philosophy built around education, training, or socializing. On the other hand, many of us apply the common sense to know that this is hardly why many people go to college, or at least take away from the experience. Whether we believe in a meritocratic environment (theory 1), a democratic environment (theory 2), or a self-serving environment (theory 3), none of us are shy of understanding the importance of connection. The college campus has become a self-sustaining virtual ecosystem wherein the classroom is merely a conduit or a sound rather than a bay. Don’t just take my, or Menand’s word for it, note some of these stats used within the article to support his argument:

–       Students don’t view, nor value, college as a fundamentally educational experience—45% of students show no improvement on the CLA test after three years of college

–       Students spend less than 5 hrs a week studying

–       Students in liberal arts fields show greater improvement than non-liberal arts (this is in reference to the CLA Test, of which 45% of students show no improvement on after three years of college

–       The students who score the lowest and improve the least are business majors, and yet this is the number one major in America

So why do so many Americans “go back to school”? The first and third theorist would say it is, “ to improve their chances at higher income and greater social/financial capability” (In 2008, the average income for someone with an advanced degree (master’s, professional, or doctoral) was $83,144; for someone with a bachelor’s degree, it was $58,613; for someone with only a high-school education, it was $31,283). The second theorist may say it is to “learn, now that they are at an age where the value of the information is seen for what it is, rather than a mean to an ends,” or what we could call education maturity.

Regardless of which category of theories you belong to, for any of you who are debating on the advantages of college at an age when Never Never Land feels more like a daycare and than summer camp, there is still plenty to mull over. Are we overvaluing a commodity for which there are “cheap and plentiful” opportunities and whose return is hardly worth the cost? Has education become similar to the real estate problem? That is, are Americans being forced into something they can’t afford and don’t need? And if so, why? Who are those benefiting from this dupe?