Saturday, June 5, 2010

On Incentives, Creation, and a Cultural Shift

Buttercup stepped into my office a minute ago saying simply, "You know, everyone shouldn't feel like they need to go to college to make it in the world."  Can it be said any more directly?  The current administration complains bitterly that we do not produce and export enough, yet they still feel like everyone should be entitled or even required to go to college.  What if folks don't want to?  What if the opportunity cost of doing so means missing out on four unencumbered years of concentrated effort in their desired field?  Does not going to college somehow besmirch the accomplishment of their goals?  Should they feel required to accumulate debt in order to have a degree that might be useless in practicality?

This conversation reminded me of a NY Times article from late May, see full text here.  Quotes below to emphasize points that follow:
Like many middle-class families, Cortney Munna and her mother began the college selection process with a grim determination. They would do whatever they could to get Cortney into the best possible college ... Today, however, Ms. Munna, a 26-year-old graduate of New York University, has nearly $100,000 in student loan debt ... She recently received a raise and now makes $22 an hour working for a photographer. It’s the highest salary she’s earned since graduating with an interdisciplinary degree in religious and women’s studies.
The above summarizes the situation that many middle class Americans experience.  They desire to better their standing and are conditioned from an early age to believe that going to college is the only way to do so.  Forgetting for a moment that this willingness to accumulate debt goes directly to my case for the United States as an exemplar of the worst of Western Financialism, let's consider that Ms. Munna likely had no real desire to become a life-long scholar of Religious and Women's Studies.  Rather, she felt that having a diploma from a well recognized institution like NYU would somehow bring greater wealth as she pursued her desires in photography.

Propagating the myth of a college diploma as a key to success in life leads to an imbalance in the population between those who create (those who do), and those who manage.  Using the military as an analog, an individual is either commissioned or enlisted.  The structure looks like a pyramid.  There exist clear limitations on the quantities of commissioned officers versus the body of enlisted men.  Are the enlisted any less successful than their commissioned leadership?  Plenty of anecdotes exist that indicate that non-commissioned officers (NCO's) garner the respect of the rank-and-file, not because they were bestowed with a title as officers are, but because these leaders were selected as the best from the ranks, and began at the beginning just like the men and women they lead.  Whereas baby-faced commissioned officers rely on their NCO's for practical advice to counterbalance their book learning, so too do crew foremen advise young college graduates in the construction field about schedules, milestones, and frankly, what tasks simply cannot be done the way that the book-learned would plan.

Our get-rich-quick culture has come to rely on attempting to short-circuit the apprenticeship culture that sustained generations before us.  Perhaps the time has come to recognize more fully that effort and desire cannot be taught.  Our schools should not fail students who don't give a rip for literary studies if they show real interest in metal fab.  In order to make a philosophical return to the system that had worked for so long, our education system must present higher education as only one option in a sea of opportunity.  If secondary schools made the effort to blend focus on life skills like personal finance (balancing checkbooks, credit card interest policy, how mortgages work) with esoterics like higher order mathematics I submit that we would be empowering a generation of doers capable of anything and structurally buttressing the future economy.

Every child doesn't want the Nobel.  Why should we educate them as if they are a failure for not desiring one?

Stasis.  Sustainability.  Desire.  Ambition.  These tenets could drive our civilian population to new heights of local thought and physical creation.  If one thing is for certain, our economy has turned a corner now that China is soon to assume the mantle of economic preeminence.  In order to find our place in the new reality, we must allow any success to be judged as successful, not as a caveat in some feudal ruse.  Hope is the light that guides.  Let us never willfully or unknowingly squelch that light.