Thursday, November 12, 2015

Lower Learning

     Time was, it was generally understood that not every young adult was a suitable candidate for a college education. The reasons would vary – this one wasn’t intelligent enough; that one is much better with his hands; that other one prefers outdoor work – but they were usually sober and defensible. Moreover, in that time colleges weren’t regarded as places to acquire “white collar vocational training.” Their purpose was to produce educated men: persons intimately familiar, in Matthew Arnold’s deathless phrase, with “the best that has been thought and said,” with emphasis on the humanities and the arts. In consequence, they were oversupplied with the offspring of wealthy families, such that their material futures were already assured.

     I needn’t detail how the post-World War II economic environment and the G.I. Bill changed that. Advances in the technologies, particularly electronics, opened opportunities that consumed some of the new graduates; some of the others found other places in the expanding “white collar” ranks, while the rest scattered themselves among more traditional occupations.

     Slowly, a change in attitude came over the parents of the Baby Boom. It was amplified among Boomers who became parents. When it was complete, the conventional wisdom had become that everyone ought to aspire to being college educated, and that parents had a near-to-enforceable obligation to ensure that their offspring had the financial means to attend an “institution of higher learning.”

     As the transition took hold, ever fewer young men even thought about entering the trades, the less-specialized manual occupations, or the military. State and federal interventions into the funding of higher education accelerated both college tuitions and the mechanisms by which a student might meet them. The synergy of these trends has given us of 2015 a pronounced shortage of white-collar jobs to absorb new college graduates. It also has us commenting dourly, and more often as time has passed, about how hard it is to get the services of a carpenter / plumber / electrician / mason / mechanic / [insert your choice here] when you need one, and how hard it is to afford him when you finally find one.

     Which appears to have ignited a trend to rebalance the scales.


     Enough has already been written about the accelerating hostility toward young men that’s gripped American colleges and universities. At this point, new female graduates outnumber their male classmates by about three to two. The effects upon the declining quality of college education, to say nothing of the broader experience of attending a college, can hardly be overstated. More often than ever before, graduates emerge from the halls of ivy functionally useless but believing themselves to be worth a fortune. Accordingly, businesses with white-collar slots to fill repose little trust in the value of a graduate’s diploma.

     Those influences, in concert with the high and rising cost of a degree even from a tuition-subsidized “state university,” is helping to propel young men toward the non-college or “blue collar” occupations. Fathers have returned to suggesting such possibilities to their teenaged sons, both for the boys’ sakes and for the sake of their bank balances. Though the supposed low prestige of the trades, etc. discourages some teens, many are attracted by the prospects for security of employment and generous compensation. An increasing number of small businesses are capitalizing on the trend by offering apprenticeships to high-school graduates who can present testimony to their good character and evidence of their willingness to work.

     So far, so good, eh? Indeed, today nearly all the effects are to the good. Ironically, some of the negative ones are being felt in the “marriage market,” as young female graduates discover the diminished possibilities open to them for “marrying up.” But nothing in our world is static. There will be another rebalancing as the “blue collar” occupations are repopulated and the “white collar” world sees the trickle of employable college grads dwindle from the current flood.

     Let’s think a bit, using the widest possible field of view, about what those effects might prove to be.


     First, America’s “institutions of higher learning” will be forced to tighten their belts. The torrent of applicants of the past several decades is already subsiding. It will never completely cease, of course, but the latitude universities have had to pick and choose among applicants, and to embrace increased costs as they have, will disappear. Financial discipline will return. The increase in tuitions will be checked. Departments with excess staff will be forced to shed it. Departments that offer the matriculating student neither significant career possibilities nor the classical education prized by earlier generations will be radically scaled back or eliminated altogether. Those institutions that refuse to recognize and adapt to the realities will go under, unless they can secure the patronage of far richer institutions.

     Second, businesses that need “white collar” workers will discover that the graduates they need are in declining supply. In some cases, this will conduce to greater efficiency, as some firms discover that they really can “do more with less.” In others, firms that hope to expand their operations will lack the new blood they need to do so. Also, highly technical occupations may experience personnel starvation as older technologists retire, as is already happening in the armed services. The compensation offered to desirable candidates will increase, though not to the skies.

     Third, matrimonial aspirations will experience a reshuffling. An increasing number of marriage-minded young women will find it impossible to “marry up” in the traditional fashion – i.e., to marry a more educated man who makes more money. Some will remain single lifelong. Others will “go for the money,” and marry a self-employed tradesman. These will swiftly discover how little indulgence is shown the wife of a man who’s been “turning a wrench” for twelve hours. Dinner had better be ready when he gets home, and no whining about the day you’ve had at the office, girlie.

     All the above “first wave” effects are easy to foresee, should present trends continue. What’s less easy to foresee is the second wave of adjustments: those that will be made in response to the adjustments delineated here. What will come of the reduced supply of college graduates – especially technologists – and the increasing supply of well-compensated “blue collar” workers after the “first wave” has passed?


     Some of the developments likely to follow the above changes would be entirely benign. For example, businesses of sufficient size might return to training their own new generations, as was once far more common in corporate America. White collar apprenticeships might multiply and become diverse; also, major businesses might open educational institutions of their own. The improved, albeit more narrowly focused educations available would be a pure blessing.

     Some of the developments would be greeted variably: some with delight, others with dismay. We’re already seeing the expansion of the use of robots in certain fields. There would be incentives to increase it further should the fees demanded by skilled tradesmen remain high despite the increase in their numbers. Inventors here and abroad would see market opportunities for products and gear that reduce the need for those skilled tradesmen, and perhaps for other sorts of “blue collar” workers. The unionized businesses would be least able to exploit such things, but union shops are already sliding into the dustbin of history.

     Other developments would be uniformly dismal: the increased use of imported workers; greater recourse to “outsourcing” and “offshoring;” the loss of economic dynamism; the retreat from world economic primacy as a greater fraction of our workers occupy themselves with jobs that have already been done for many years. Our aggregate economic product might not actually decrease, but it would surely have difficulty matching the explosive growth of our best days. Our international influence would decline in proportion.

     Perhaps worst of all would be the deterioration of our social relations. People accustomed to advance adapt poorly to enforced retrenchment. This is especially the case in a society that’s assumed that each generation will be more prosperous, more secure, more peaceable, and less heavily burdened than the previous one. Retrenchments are usually accompanied by a reduction in overall tolerance of divergence from social norms. Homosexuals, radical feminists, the “avant-garde,” and others who’ve internalized a mentality of dissidence or deviance would be unhappy with the results.


     Herbert George Wells famously said that “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” Wells, a socialist, was incorrect about the vector on which education would take us, though some contemporary developments might have pleased him, but he was dead on target about the importance of increasing Mankind’s fund of knowledge. Imagine the state the world would be in were Norman Borlaug never to have been born. Imagine what Europe would look like were it not for Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and the development of nuclear weapons. Imagine how any aspect of life in contemporary society would be conducted without the effortless communication made possible by digital systems, satellites, and the Internet.

     The transformation of American universities into “institutions of lower learning” has produced a state of affairs in which certain indulgences we rich ones of the early Twenty-First Century have long taken for granted will soon become unaffordable. In particular, the uselessness of the government-run schools will be cast into high relief as the crisis accelerates. Sinecure occupations – “diversity officers” come to mind – will be eliminated root and branch. Large numbers of young persons will find the futures they envisioned closed to them. Though some costs will fall, others will rise, and the final balance cannot be predicted beforehand. None of these effects can be averted in the near term.

     And as I’ve been saying ever more often lately, there is no Last Graf.

3 comments:

gamegetter II said...

Skilled trade jobs tend to pay great-as long as you can demonstrate the skills.
Way back in the late'70's/early 80's when I was still attending college for a mechanical engineering degree,along with an associates degree in architectural engineering,I saw what the pay was going to be,and said screw this.
I apprenticed to become a professional chef,and worked as the executive chef in hotels and private country clubs for 20+ years.
That's a career with a very high "burnout" rate.
Since I had always-since high school woodshop anyhow-worked with wood building stuff ,and had done part-time work framing houses over the course of the 20 years in restaurant and hotel kitchens-I went to work full time pounding nails,ended up apprenticing to become a carpenter.
Both of those skilled trades paid far more than an engineering degree would have got me.
Today's kids need to go back into the trades-as there is a serious shortage of skilled workers in many areas.
Plus it prevents the leftist indoctrination in college.

Weetabix said...

Your first few paragraphs strike a chord. I've been reading Nock's Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. He thought it started in the 1910-1919 period.

Col. B. Bunny said...

Very thoughtful, Fran. I saw a long time ago how law schools were pumping large numbers of lawyers into a saturated system. One could still hope to excel as an exceptional lawyer but hiring on with a firm seemed an increasingly remote option. Lawyer ads invariably looked for the extremely experienced or those with only two to three years of experience. Option C, of course, was government service.

The deplorable result of higher education is visible in the complete lack of allegiance to the culture and the nation, with absolute nonsense taking up residence in the space between the ears. "College grad" means mostly "pampered, sniveling, feminist, race-obsessed, metrosexual nitwit" more often than not Apparently lots of those grads think they are hot commodities.

There will be adjustments.

I have to say effecting a repair on my automobile has given me more pleasure in this life than most of what I've done with the law. There have been good moments, especially as a teacher for a while, but there's more pleasure in mastering technical skills. That's mostly true because the car doesn't have an opinion or a personality to complicate matters and it offers plenty of intellectual challenge. Professional pursuits can be interesting and lucrative but they invariably come with more stress and politics, especially the non-technical ones. That wears thin as one gets older.