Thursday, September 27, 2018

If the Goal Is Broadening My Horizons, Then Why Am I on This Campus?

We’re hearing the defense of liberal arts education more and more, from the critics of Betsy DeVos and defenders of loan forgiveness to the embittered humanities professors squeezed out by universities’ shifting priorities. They portray a battle between vocationalists and poets, business and ivory towers.
Was it serendipity that brought
these two together?
I’m a lover of books, of exploration, of living in new places and trying new things. I’m a defender of the liberal arts; but that’s why I can’t understand going to college.

Broaden your horizons! Learn to learn! Take time to explore! So goes the parent and guidance-counsellor wisdom about 4-year liberal arts degrees.

Getting in to the more elite schools requires looking like an explorer and free-thinker. A volunteer trip to Guatemala. A teen summer leadership conference. A provocative essay. (Never mind that many schools have used these subjective indicators as cover for years to disguise racial profiling in admission decisions, and one is now dragged before a Federal Court.) But better not explore too much. Not actually work two years in Guatemala. Not actually enroll for a semester in Delhi. Certainly nothing that would disrupt the pathway from high school to competitive (Oh please! Oh please! Pick meeee!!) enrollment at a single, in-residence, 4-year college.
Embarking on the journey
Teen exploration is a Panda Express version of a real thing that’s abundantly available all around us, made of real stuff, and infinitely cheaper, too.

If I should get comfortable working, living and cooperating with people very different from me, why don’t I get a job at McDonalds? Or cleaning restrooms in my nearest airport? Why not extend that volunteer work in a faraway country long enough to really make a difference? Why do we instead count on the army of admissions officers and their opaque selection model to place me with people who will supposedly broaden my worldview?

If I should learn to learn, then why is the process administration-led and not student-led? Why should I only take classes during defined intervals and only from this one school? Why shouldn’t I pursue the topics that interest me most from the sources (whether it’s Udemy or Masterclass or another university or person) that deliver the most value to me?

If I should explore, then why is there a required curriculum? And even as critics point to the erosion of supposedly “essential” education toward trendy, preachy progressivism, administrators still dish it out like a pre-set menu: so many credits of race and ethnicity, so many credits of foreign language, so many credits of social science… Why is my path so mechanical and contrived? Wasn’t Picasso exploring when he dedicated years of his life to the color blue? How have we become such bean-counters about exploration?

What you won’t hear ivory tower-defenders admit is that the ivory tower itself is a business model. And a very illiberal one. Excessively complex and untransparent selection. Bloated administrative function that poses to ensure diversity and uphold fragile identities while driving up per-student costs. Bundled product that raises switching costs and leverages simplistic HR systems (highest level of education= drop-down menu) to over-price a product that costs far less in unit-form. Inflexible product terms and conditions (e.g., timing of course availability, core requirements) that always advantage the seller. Indirect subsidy distribution and third-party payment schemes (think Sallie Mae and American taxpayer) that limit buyer incentives and information for true price comparison. Final price tag double the median household income.*

So if the goal is broadening my horizons, then why should I go to college? If I am the most liberal, liberal arts student, then I should grab my backpack and head for an internship far away. Tuck Jack Kerouac under my arm and hop the next Greyhound. Hook up to Udemy and Coursera from the sofa where I end up sleeping tonight. Show up on some college campus not starry-eyed and contractually bound,
not primed by some elite, inaccessible process, not riding on mom and dad’s home equity line of credit; but with twenty bucks, a backpack, and a one-click sign-up for the course that interests me. And a few years from now, my mix-and-match courses, my pasted-together knowledge and experiences shouldn’t wear like a stigma on my first big job interview, but should be a legitimate and understandable credential to the HR blockhead. That would be a real liberation.

Be wary of those who defend liberal arts from inside university campuses. There’s a business process at work that’s sifting, sorting and stamping the foreheads of over-eager teens (Louis Vuitton! Prada! Gucci!) while pretending to celebrate learning.

*U.S. median household income, 2016, acc. U.S. Census Bureau was $57,617.
In 2017-2018, the average cost of 4-year undergraduate tuition and fees was 2018 school year was $138,960 at private colleges, $39,880 for state residents at public colleges, and $102,480 for out-of-state residents at public colleges.

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