NATCHITOCHES, La., May 18, 2012 — An analysis of government data indicates that half of recent college graduates are either unemployed or underemployed. “Unemployed” is reasonably self-evident. “Underemployed” means basically that they have jobs that do not require a higher education.
A college graduate working as a Starbucks barista is underemployed.
A second statistic is only disturbing if you care: Liberal commencement speakers at the top 100 universities this year outnumber conservatives by seven-to-one. Only 10 commencement speakers can be identified as conservative, and 71 as liberal. The others have no clear ideological leanings.
In fact, the two statistics are not unrelated.
It isn’t likely that your college-educated waiter has a degree in computer science or electrical engineering. It is much more likely that her degree (most college students are now female, the percentage exceeding 60 percent at some elite schools) is in English or political science. The vast majority of her professors were politically liberal, they grew up thinking that race, gender and politics were the foundation of everything, and they disdain the importance of education beyond making students more politically aware. There’s an excellent chance that she’s a degreed ignoramus who couldn’t think her way through an open door, with no skills at all relevant to doing more than taking food orders.
This is, of course, a gross and unfair generalization. There are many fine scholars teaching liberal arts and humanities in our universities, and many students who study the humanities are fiercely intelligent and curious about the world. It really isn’t that hard to argue that studying Homer, Plato, Shakespeare and Dante has immense value, as does learning Latin. But when we deal with statistics like “half are unemployed,” we are dealing with some important generalities, and here’s the worst and most important of them.
College education is increasingly irrelevant.
Your underemployed server probably has not studied Latin, nor even one of its modern descendants. Colleges rarely require foreign languages anymore. In this age of economic globalization, even business programs give short shrift to language requirements. When a foreign language is required, a couple of semesters of Spanish will usually suffice, the role of foreign languages to American business students apparently being to sell retail to Spanish-speaking customers or manage a maquiladora.
She probably has not studied calculus. Mathematics are considered a turn-off to potential students, so programs outside of engineering and the natural sciences have minimized any mathematical requirements. Educated people in the humanities would never admit that they can’t read (though many of them don’t care to), but they will brag about their incapacity with math.
Science is badly taught in primary and secondary schools, and by the time they get to college, American students don’t much care for it. Graduate programs are packed full of Korean, Chinese and Indian students, while American students stay away in droves. Undergraduate chemistry and biology programs across the country would probably die if it weren’t for the fact that pre-meds still need organic chemistry to get into medical school.
The skills of critical and analytical thought are largely ignored in university education, but our students are excellent at opining. A chemistry student, complaining to a colleague of mine about her grade, argued that her answer was just as correct as the correct one, claiming, “my opinion is as good as yours.” A former colleague specialized in gendered approaches to science, one of her lectures leading me to ask, “do women study electrons that are different than the ones men study?” Whatever the virtues of her argument that our scientific understanding of the world is shaped by heterosexual patriarchal hegemonic thinking, when you push against the universe, it pushes back with blithe disregard for your gender and race.
Supreme self confidence and regard for your own genius prepares you only for the job of touting yourself. Employers need students who can do arithmetic (preferably without using their fingers, sometimes even without a calculator), write complete English sentences, and figure out how to solve problems that they’ve never seen on a study guide.
Our students are unemployed and barely employable as college graduates because we’ve pandered to their rational dislike of hard work, then ignored the real problems of academia in favor of political posturing. Universities and a university education are more important than ever, and we should be encouraging more students to go to university and be more willing to fund it than ever before, but we (faculty, administrations, students, legislatures and parents) have worked to trivialize universities and make it hard to justify the expense of a degree.
A well-educated and well-trained citizenry and workforce are essential to a healthy democracy and a healthy economy. The problem is, universities are doing a poor job of educating and training anyone. We badly need universities, just not the universities we have. Fixing them requires rethinking what we want them to do.
James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. Now when his students ask for study guides, he says, “no.” When they ask what will be on the exam, he tells them that he didn’t assign anything unimportant, so it can all be on the exam. And when they ask how long their papers should be, he replies, “50 pages, plus notes and bibliography.” They’ve stopped asking. He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at pichtblog.blogspot.com.
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