Relatively Cheap, Really Good
In other words, for much of the 20th century, college was not that exorbitantly expensive (my hardscrabble grandfather farmer sent all three of his daughters to college, two to Stanford, on the meager profits from 100 acres of raisins in the midst of the Depression). Students emerged literate and mostly disinterested and inductive. The most impressive degrees, of course, were not history or English (much less environmental studies). Instead the palm went to engineering, physics, mathematics, and biology. These were the hard sciences and skills that few of us could master. Social sciences were relatively small enclaves. And while science majors got As in their gut GE anthropology, sociology, and psychology courses, the opposite was not true: the latter majors panicked when forced to take a basic physics or physiology class to graduate.
I note in passing that not only were there no black, Latino, gender, green, film, gay, peace, or leisure studies courses, programs, and empires, but also a general impression that no one would wish to pay for such classes that imparted little real knowledge about the inductive method or the necessary referents of literature, history, and science. So many of these classes were therapeutic. Some were downright accusatory: go back through history and as melodrama point out the bad and good guys (based on present-day liberal standards), or study how modern capitalism should be replaced by a more humane model — in environmental, financial, religious, racial, class, and gender terms.
So here is where the last thirty years all led: to too many students who are indebted, poorly educated, and without skills like high-tech engineering, sophisticated medicine, or computer design that the country needs. They are consumed with contemporary furor as the education bubble of nearly a trillion dollars in debt is about to burst. They are mad at the system that they were taught oppresses them, but also at themselves. Who would not be after spending so much money for something of so little value? Nothing is more embarrassing to watch than arrogance coupled with ignorance — and spiced with occasional glibness and the slow realization that they’ve been had.
It is taboo for the Obama technocracy to consider exploiting the vast natural riches of America. And how can one admit that printing money destroys prosperity? Who can confess that expectations of government subsidy ruin personal initiative? So how, then, can students question the utility of their educations? They don’t dare object to the university’s manner of operations, or how their loans underwrote the need for a six-figured assistant provost of internal development or associate vice president for diversity awareness — or a vast number of new hip professors who just thirty or forty years ago would not be seen as professors at all.
I think in over twenty years of teaching I received about 5,000 memos warning me about insidious practices of sexism, racism, classism, or other sorts of oppression, what the chair, dean, provost, president was doing about it (usually setting up a watchdog faculty committee) — and not a single one wondering how we could bring rigor to the curriculum and real learning to the students.
The End of the Dream
In sum, there is panic. Obamacare, near-zero interest rates, more environmental and fiscal regulations, government takeovers, bailouts, and stimulus, nearly $5 trillion in debt, $1.6 trillion in annual deficits, vast increases in food stamps and unemployment insurance, and hectoring the private sector — all that and more did not restore prosperity. More likely we ruined a natural recovery — if 9.1% unemployment, anemic GDP growth, ruinous debt, precipitous declines in the standard of living, and the return of the old record misery index are any indication. All Obama in 2012 is left with is the old trifecta of “Bush did it,” “they” will cut your Social Security, and a subtle racism fuels all opposition.
There is a deer-in-the-headlights paralysis in all those who believed that you could get a government subsidized $100,000 loan, receive easy As in environmental studies or sociology, buy a prestigious BA certificate, and then enter the lucrative world of the government bureaucracy — teaching, administering, suing, and regulating.
Not Enough Smelts or Pipelines to Go Around
But it did not work that way (there is not room enough for all of us to champion the delta smelt, find insidious racism in the Detroit schools, shut down an oil pipeline, or sue Arizona). Instead, we are left with an energy-poor country sitting on energy riches, a moribund economy with millions in the private sector piling up cash rather than investing or hiring, and cohorts of young, flat-broke, indebted, and politically prepped but poorly schooled students wondering where is the good life and why a Wall Street fixer, or computer nerd, or company man civil engineer makes so much more than they, the anointed, do.
So they rage on — and on and on…