Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Education
While addressing students at the university of St. Andrews in 1867, John Stuart Mill said, “Universities are not intended to teach the knowledge required to fit men for some special mode of gaining their livelihood…Their object is not to make skillful lawyers, or physicians, or engineers, but capable and cultivated human beings” (qtd. in Charles Murray 234). Although I personally agree with Mills’ view that creating cultivated human beings should be the role of universities, it can’t be denied that in today’s world—where companies won’t even interview an applicant without a degree—the role of universities has been more commonly thought of as the place where the golden tickets for fulfilling careers are handed out. Perceived as a powerful gateway to economic success, the college degree, has become considered by many a mandatory step to having a successful career and ascending the social economic latter.
Having the opportunity, as citizens, to ascend through the social classes is what the America dream is all about. As James Truslow Adams puts it, the American Dream is “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” (214-215). As I imagine Adams’ American Dream, I see a place where the poorest of immigrants can come and by the merits of their hard work support their family, where their children will be offered an equally impactful and complete education as their fellow citizens, and where there are unbounded opportunities for a family to move from the bottom to the top of the economic ladder. The question is: Is this a reality in the America we live in today? The answer to this in a word is: No. According to Robert D. Putnam, the Malakin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, beginning in the 1970’s, the gap between the income levels of the top, middle, and bottom earners has progressively widened, and the economic classes have become increasingly segregated. As a result, this class segregation has driven an inequality in the education system that Robert claims is closely tied to decreasing social mobility in America. In Roberts’ words, “rich Americans and poor Americans are living, learning, and raising children in increasingly separate and unequal worlds, removing the stepping-stones to upward mobility” (41). This “upward mobility,” as Robert calls it, is the ability for poor families to rise out of poverty which is an integral part of what we consider the American Dream to be. Thus, if it is true that economic segregation is creating unequal education opportunities—translating to less opportunity for the lower classes to rise out of poverty—then it would seem the ideals of our nation are compromised.
President Barak Obama describes education as “an economic imperative” (qtd. in Stephanie Owen and Isabel Sawhill 208) and, admittedly, for good reason. Studies show there is a strong correlation between the level of education a person has and the level of income they will receive. According to Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney of the Hamilton project, full time workers aged twenty-three to twenty-five make on average $12,000 more per year than high school graduates their same age. Furthermore, this pay difference increases over a worker’s lifetime, and by age fifty the average pay difference is around $46,500 (qtd. in Stephanie Owen and Isabel Sawhill 208). This data shows that there is a strong correlation between education and economic success which suggests that if we are trying to fix the problems of social mobility, looking for ways to increase access to education seems like a good place to start.
However, solving the problem of decreasing social mobility may not be so simple. In recent discussions of the college education, as it relates to upward mobility, a controversial issue is whether it is good for the wellbeing of students and society to be encouraging so many to get Bachelor’s degrees. On the one hand, some argue that we should encourage as many students as possible to go to college, and make the availability of the college education more accessible so more young people are able and encouraged to get a degree. By extension, it seems logical that if we encourage more people get degrees and make it easier by providing federal funding, we should see more people climbing the social economic latter—thus solving the problem of un-equal opportunity in America as it relates to education. On the other hand, however, others argue that indiscriminately encouraging a broad spectrum of students to get a degree is harming rather than helping a large percentage of young people. In the words Charles Murray, by encouraging so many people to go to college we are, “Lur[ing] large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability or motivation to achieve the goal [of getting a degree] … We … then stigmatizes those who fail to achieve it” (253). What I believe Murray is saying is that we are encouraging too many people, who are ill equipped for the rigor of college, to go out and get a degree, and from Murray’s point of view, prescribing a one size fits all education like the B.A. for every young person is the wrong move. This is because, as Murray puts it, getting a liberal college education is “intellectually too demanding for most young people,” and by not acknowledging that, we are setting up our youth with unrealistic expectations (251). In other words, most people’s abilities are in areas other than academia, and by encouraging people without a high aptitude in the liberal arts to get a liberal arts degree, we are setting them up for disappointment. Moreover, by doing this, we fail to provide the majority of our youth with paths that will lead them to a successful career and fail to fix the social problems we face. According to this view, it would be beneficial to start encouraging more students to go vocational schools helping them prepare for meaningful careers that are more in alignment with their aptitudes. In sum, then, the issue is whether we are harming or helping society by putting more people on a path toward a B.A.
To express my own view, I first need to explain what college means to me: College is a place where a person can discover themselves—not just their aptitudes and abilities—but who they are as a human and a force in the world, and though it may sound simplistic or naïve, I personally can’t think of anything more important to do then that. Moreover, I believe every person has untapped potential waiting to be discovered and expressed, and I want to live in a world where everyone has the opportunity to discover and express that potential—I just think that would make the life more fun. In saying that, my own view is that college should be available for all. Now, I’m not saying that everyone should go to college, but I think it should be available for all who want to discover their aptitudes, limits and expand their boundaries and, sure, for those who want to make more money. However, I don’t think sending more people to college will fix our social problems. To take a case in point, more people are going to college than ever before, and yet we are still seeing increases in pay inequality, class segregation, and decreasing social mobility. When I look at this, I intuit that education is likely, in part, driving these social problems, and encouraging more people to go to college will probably increase the class divide—especially between the bottom and everyone else. After all, if we succeed in sending nearly everyone to college, companies like Mc Donald’s will be able to be picky enough to require applicants to have a B.A. just to flip burgers—where will the uneducated work then? I’m not sure, but my point isn’t to answer this question, it’s to illustrate how educating even the entire planet won’t fix the problem of inequality. Rather, I believe the solution to that problem lies more in the realm of social services and laws that mandate livable wages for lower level occupations. To do this, it would seem the wealthy and affluent would need to be re-educated on the importance of valuing the skills of their blue-collar counterparts—who serve them hand and foot.
In sum, the college degree is undoubtedly a deviser between the haves and the have nots, and there is much debate about what roll the college education should have in our society moving forward. Some believe college can solve the problems we face with decreasing upward mobility, and others think the roll of college should be providing people with an environment for personal growth rather than economic growth. Still, the fact remains that while more people are going to college than ever before, and statistical analysis shows that the “returns to education” are high, the college education system—as it is today—doesn’t seem to provide a solution to the problems of increasing pay inequality, class segregation or decreasing social mobility which are the biggest threats to our American dream.
Adams, James Truslow. The Epic of America. Boston: Little, Brown, 1931. Print.
Murray, Charles. “Are Too Many People Going to College.” “They Say/I Say”: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing: With Readings. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 234-53. Print.
Putnam, Robert D. Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015. Print.
Sawhill, Isabel V., and Stephanie Owen. “Should Everyone Go To College?” Brookings. Brookings, 28 July 2016. Web. 05 Feb.