I was at a restaurant for lunch and had time to visit with the waitress, who turns out to be a college graduate from a good institution with a decent degree in European languages. But here she is waiting tables with non-degreed people 5 years her younger and 10 years her elder.
There’s nothing wrong with that and she is making good money. But you have to wonder: what was the professional advantage to her of those four hard years in school and the $200K spent in them. What were the opportunity costs?
This is not another article to disparage the value of a college degree. I would like to raise a more fundamental question. It concerns the strange way in which our system of education has overly segmented our lives into a series of episodic upheavals, each of which has little to do with the other, the value of one accomplishment being oddly disconnected from the next stage and none of them directly connecting to our professional goals except in the unusual case.
From the earliest age until adulthood, we’ve been hurled from institution to institution in a way that eventually sets young people back from developing continuity of plans and a social support system to realize their goals. At the end of it all, people find themselves back where they started: figuring out their market worth and trying to find a buyer for their services. But instead of drawing down on accumulated capital, they end up starting fresh at the age of 22.
There is something seriously wrong with this system.
Stick To Your Class
In a few months, for example, many millions of high school students will graduate. Celebration! Sort of. It’s great to finish school. But what’s next? Many students find themselves devastated to lose the only social group and friendship network they’vw ever known. They worked for years to cultivate it and in one sudden instant it is blown apart. They are left with a piece of paper, a yearbook of memories, a transcript, and, perhaps a few recommendation letters from teachers that do them very little good in the marketplace.
“Don’t ever change,” they write in each other’s yearbook. It expresses a normal longing to hold on to the investment the students make in each other’s lives, even as everything about the system tries to take that investment from them.
Is this the way it should be?
Then the same group, or at least many among them, look forward to college where they are mostly, again, starting from scratch in a social sense. It can be very scary. They begin their new experience isolated. Again, they work for four years to develop a network, a robust social group, to find their footing and establish a reputation and sense of self. This is the only world they’ve known for four years and they have invested their hearts and souls in the experience. The social fabric ends up rich and wonderful, with intense friendships based on shared lives.
Finally, four years later, the graduation march plays, the tassel is moved from one side of the cap to the other, and the whole social apparatus goes up in smoke. The diaspora starts again. They again find themselves nearly alone, with few hooks into the world of commerce and employment. They have a degree but few opportunities to monetize it. Their social network is of limited use to them. All they have, again, is a piece of paper. Plus they have recommendation letters from professors that do them little good in the marketplace.
This not always the case. There are workarounds and digital networking is helping. People join fraternities and social clubs, and, those can be useful going forward. But it might take years for these connections to yield results. The more immediate problem is: what do I do now? Lacking a broad sense of the way the world works, and missing any influential hooks into prevailing networks, a college grad can often find herself feeling isolated once again, starting over for the third time.
The Failure of the Central Plan
This is the system that the civic culture has created for us. For the years between the ages of 14 and 22, students’ primary focus of personal investment and social capital building is centered on their peers. But their peers are just the same as they are, hoping for a good future but having few means at their disposal to get from here to there.
Why does this keep happening? Looking at the big picture, you see a serious problem with the plan for success that the educational system that the politicians built for us. It is keeping people on track but is it really preparing people for the future?
A core principle of the current education system is: stay in school and stay with your class. It goes on from the earliest grades all the way through the end of college. The accidents of birth determined your peer group, your primary social influences, and the gang you rely on for social support.
To be “held back” is considered somewhat disgraceful, and to be pushed forward a grade is considered somewhat dangerous for personal development. Your class rank is your world, the very definition of who you are, and it stays with you for up to 25 years of your life. Everyone is on a track as defined by a ruling class: here is what you should and must know when. All your peers are with you.
Many factors entrench this reality. The public school system is organized on the assumption of homogeneity, a central plan imposed from the top down. It didn’t happen all at once. It came about slowly over the course of 100-plus years, from the universalization of compulsory schooling to the prohibition of youth work to the gradual nationalization of curriculum.
In the end, we find the lives of young people strictly segmented by stages that are strangely discontinuous. Where are the professional contacts that result? Where are the friends you know in the world of business who can smooth your way into the world of professional work? They aren’t among your peer group. Members of your group are all in the same position you are in.
Laws that Lock People Out
The workplace might help to mitigate this problem, but it’s incredibly difficult for young people to get a regular job thanks to “child labor” laws that exclude teens from the workforce. For this reason, only one in four high-school kids have any real experience outside their peer group. They miss all the growing-up opportunities that come with the workplace, learning from examples of personal initiative, responsibility, independence and accountability.
There are extremely narrow conditions under which teens can work at 14 but few business want to bother with the necessary documentation and restrictions. At 16, matters become more liberalized but, even here, they can’t work in kitchens or serve alcohol. The full freedom to engage a larger community outside the segmented class structure doesn’t come until after you graduate high school.
By the time the opportunity comes around to do authentic remunerative work, a student’s life is filled with other interests, mostly social but also extracurricular. Instead of working a job, people are doing a thousand other things and there seems to be no time left. For this reason it is not uncommon for people to graduate at 22 with no professional experiences to draw on at all. Their peers are their only asset, the only really valuable relationships, but these relationships have very little commercial value.
How natural and normal is this? I have doubts. If you look at the social structure of homeschooling co-ops, for example, young kids and older kids mix it up in social environments, and they learn from each other. Parents of all ages are well integrated too, and it creates a complex social environment. The parents know all the kids and, together, they form a diverse micro-society of rich and interesting mutual interest. This is one reason that homeschool kids can seem remarkably precocious and poised around people of all ages. They are not being artificially pegged into slots and held there against their will.
A Better Way
When you read about the experiences of successful people in the late 19th century, they talk of their exciting and broad experiences in life, working in odd jobs, meeting strange people of all ages and classes, performing tasks outside their comfort zone, encountering adult situations in business that left them with some important lesson. They didn’t learn these things from sitting in a desk, listening to a teacher, repeating lessons on tests, and staying with their class. They discovered the world through mixing it up, having fabulous and weird experiences, being with people who are not in their age group.
If you think about it, the system to which we have become accustomed is not of our choosing and it certainly isn’t organic to the social order. It has been imposed upon us, one piece of legislation at a time. It is the result of an imposed rather than evolved order.
Think about this the next time you attend a graduation. People are crying not only because they are happy to have finished. They are also genuinely sad about seeing the sudden destruction of the social order they worked so hard to cultivate. And they are sad that in short order, they will have to recreate something entirely new again. Where is the continuity? Where is the evidence of an evolved and developing order of improved opportunities?
The most important question is: what are the alternatives? Bring back apprenticeships. Bring back remunerative work from a young age. Look beyond the central plan and don’t get trapped. Rethink the claim that staying in school and staying with your class is an unmitigated good. The investments we make in our social group should be part of our lives and yield a lifetime of returns.