College Is Not a 'Ludicrous Waste of Money'

Let's give him the benefit of the doubt. Let's hope that our nation's former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, did not select the inflammatory title for his recent essay in Salon: "College is a ludicrous waste of money." But let's also recognize the truth that many will assume that's the gist and read no further; damage done. Professor Reich is certainly right in his view that our community colleges deserve support and also that vocational education has been under-developed, among the diverse array of options for postsecondary education in America. Given his particular political history, we might also surmise that his intention is to advocate more, rather than fewer educational opportunities. But that's not what comes across. Not only is the title misleading, but the argumentation is poor.

The reader who persists past that daunting title finds the suggestion that many, if not most, young people should aspire to "technician jobs." You know, the type of worker required, in our increasingly technological society, "to install, monitor, repair, test, and update all the equipment" and "to fix hardware and software." Now there's an inspirational dream for young Americans!

Don't get me wrong. Yes, of course technology and technological skills are increasingly important in our society. But many of those who have been most successful in these fields are quick to say that technological training alone can be very limiting. The best known formulation is that of Steve Jobs: alone is not enough. It's technology married with the liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the result that makes our hearts sing.

As one liberal arts grad with a 30-year career in technology expressed it to me:

Any of my computer science courses is obsolete. But over 90% of what I learned in any of my other courses is still relevant today....The best programmers, for example, will remain coders until their skills are obsolete. To make it to the next level, they have to be generalists. A liberal arts major can be that generalist.

Oddly, Professor Reich's essay reads as though he isn't interested in the next generation of workers having the opportunity to "make it to the next level." Channeling the mantra coming these days from the White House, the Department of Education, and many in the media, short-term "job-readiness" is all. The former Secretary concludes that our concept of "equal opportunity" shouldn't really be concerned with getting a college education at all; "It should mean an opportunity to learn what's necessary to get a good job."

Professor Reich is an economist. Has he not noticed that the "good job" as a "technician" that would be "a gateway to the middle class" and also sustain one through a lifetime of employment doesn't exist any more? First, the earnings differential between college graduates and non-graduates is well-documented. Those without college education who "fix the hardware," are barely reaching -- and certainly not secure in -- the middle class today. Second, evidence of the recent past is clear and the handwriting on the wall even clearer: tomorrow's graduates will not only change jobs during their lifetimes; they're likely to change entire career paths -- and to be called upon for careers that don't even exist today. How can they be prepared for that? If the scope of their education has been restricted to quick-fix training in coding or machine repair, the prospect of being life-long learners, capable of re-inventing themselves -- and, for that matter, of inventing tomorrow's innovations -- seems highly unlikely.

Professor Reich's envisioned future for tomorrow's students is troubling on at least three levels: for the fulfillment of the individual, the progress of our society, and the realization of our values. On the level of the individual, "fixing equipment" is certainly not an ignoble pursuit. In my own life, I've known carpenters, auto mechanics, and electricians who not only did very valuable work, but who also obviously found it interesting and fulfilling. Without exception, these individuals had an almost scholarly interest in what they did -- continually questioning and experimenting, exploring new techniques... in short, they were lifelong learners. Reich appears to assume that "learning on the job" will naturally create such workers. I'm less sanguine about that. Without the experience of a broader approach to learning, a few "naturals" will come to it on their own. But many more are likely to become an hourly worker who puts in time at a job that provides little fulfillment, recompense, or hope for the future.

For our society, is envisioning education as, primarily, training to "install, monitor, repair, test, and update all the equipment," likely to lead to the creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship that America is justly proud of? Professor Reich alludes to the German system as a preferable model. I question this premise; for one thing, the German social system is dramatically different in many respects from our own -- for example, in its systems of support for workers. In my own meetings with international college and university leaders, it's clear that those whose educational models have been limited to training for a job are yearning to adopt the benefits of American liberal arts education, in order to advance their own societies' possibilities for innovation.

Finally, Reich's suggestion is deeply troubling in its implications for democratic values. It can hardly be overlooked that he himself, a member of three presidential cabinets and the author of more than a dozen books, benefitted from education at Dartmouth, Oxford, and Yale -- and has spent most of his career in the professoriate of elite universities. He also notes that American business "executives are usually the products of four-year liberal arts institutions." Yet, somehow, college is a waste for the rest of us? Really, Professor Reich?