Exit Strategies

The Academic Bubble

It's fairly evident even to mainstream publications that there are too many Americans with college degrees, and not enough with the ability to do useful work.  Sure, if you go to the right schools, there is still some benefit in meeting members of the oligarchy. It is unclear that attending any other kind of school is worth anything, excepting as an extremely drawn out IQ test. It is very clear that the countless state schools, universities, community colleges: most of these are excuses for "virtuous slacking," rather than actual educational experiences. What do I mean by an actual educational experience? Consider the high school curriculum of, just taking an example at random, my mom, who graduated in the mid 1960s.

My mom went to an all-girls Catholic high school, taught by fearsome old nuns. Among her academic achievements from her very working class high school education: she has read a good fraction of Shakespeare, she learned enough Latin and Anglo Saxon to read books written in these languages, and she knows a bit of French as well. Her math in high school was integral calculus. When I went to high school ... well, I got a bit of French and we read Macbeth.  This wasn't unique to my mom either; William Henry writes about the debasement of intellectual currency in his book.

I'm sure someone will assert that knowledge of Latin and Anglo Saxon are unnecessary in our modern society. I suppose so, if you don't mind raising a generation of “educated” cretins who don't understand Western Civilization: however, there was also the integral calculus. There is also the implication that people in modern High School and College are learning something else which has displaced knowledge of Shakespeare, Anglo Saxon and Latin. I have yet to find out what this thing is.  Diversity studies, perhaps? I've only recently been teaching myself some Anglo Saxon, mostly out of embarrassment. From what I have learned thus far: the removal of Anglo Saxon poetry from standard educational curricula is egregious cultural vandalism. What better way to destroy a culture than to take away its past and give the "educated" a bucket of vulgar slogans in return?

Alas, bright cup! Alas, burnished fighter!
Alas, proud prince! How that time has passed,
Dark under night's helm, as though it never had been!

I'm sure some wise-acre will pipe up and tell us about how kids are learning all about computers now instead of learning of the glories of the Exeter poems. The funny thing is, all the people I know who have founded computer companies are college and even high school drop outs; and I know quite a few of these guys by now. They learned their computer skills by hacking, not by taking a course taught by some mediocrity who couldn't get a job at Google. Sure, they're often limited in their understanding of things like machine learning and statistics, but … people who know about such things are plentiful and cheap, thanks in part to the academic bubble, and frankly, very few people have found ways to make money off of machine learning and statistics.  People who can create technology companies are comparatively rare, and college doesn't seem to do much to create them. People who work in technology companies, well, they do tend to have college diplomas and make a decent salary. Their salaries are comparable to that of a policeman. While the policeman will never be recognized as a learned magnifico (or a nerd), he also has a retirement plan, a gun, a union, reasonable working hours, and unlike the software engineer with his student loans, he can't be outsourced, and an illegal alien can't do his job.

What is an economic bubble, exactly? There is a working definition in econophysics. A normal market is a situation in which many people have different opinions, investment horizons and models of how the world works. In a bubble, everyone has the same opinion, not because they're all doing research and have converged on the right answer. In this case the price would be fixed to an exact value. In a bubble, everyone follows a trend because they see the other fellow doing the same thing. Bubbles are only possible in times of cheap money; you have to bid up the tulips with something. So, you can see the present situation where everybody graduates from high school and attempts to go to government funded college is technically a bubble.  It is a bubble financially in that tuitions are very high due to government subsidy and cheap loans.


Does that look like a bubble to you? It certainly does to me. College is outrageously expensive. It's insanely expensive when you consider what it actually confers: a fairly limited puddle of knowledge, even compared to what we used to get for free in high school. College is long on political correctness, and short on the achievements of Western Civilization.

What is to be done? Well, to first order, nothing will be done.  According to this chart, we spend about as much on education as we do on health care. That much concentrated economic power won't go quietly into the night any time soon. The puling sanctimony over the holiness of education also doesn't bode well for putting a torch to the university system. People really believe that they will be undistinguished proles unless they have a bachelors degree in ... whatever. Many people who would otherwise be directionless in life comfort themselves by acquiring masters degrees in subjects which didn't exist 50 years ago. Excessive university education is a status bauble, as certainly as a Prius, Third World vacation or a Whole Foods shopping expedition. It is a phenomenon of people grasping after social status, rather than economic status. Until the idea of someone having a masters degree in public policy or women's studies becomes ridiculous, this preposterous charade will continue. One thing which should be considered carefully: if you decide your house isn't worth anything, you can default and walk away from it. You have to pay off your college education, worthless or not; bankruptcy can't protect you from the collectors of that debt in the United States.