You Went to College for That?

(Editor’s note: This article was distributed by the McClatchy newspapers in December 2011.)

As a child perusing my parents’ and grandparents’ libraries in the 1950s, I came across odd books like one instructing the reader in proper pronunciation. It taught how to say the word “despicable” (stress the “des,” not the “pic”) and incognito (stress the “cog,” not the “nito”)—just the opposite of what you normally hear. 

Another book told me that while there are many ways to announce that “it’s time to go to bed,” one never should say “let’s hit the sack.” Using that term revealed you as a hick because it alluded to times (and places) when beds were made of straw—and you didn’t want to be associated with them.

Such tomes (and others, including Emily Post’s famed book of etiquette) helped many Americans who weren’t fortunate enough to attend college—the vast majority in those days—brush off the hayseed and become proper members of the middle class as they moved into their Levittown homes with their new all-electric kitchens, Presto pressure cookers, and Encyclopedia Britannicas.

Today nearly 30 percent of American adults have college degrees. But there doesn’t seem to be much difference between many of the college educated and their non-college peers.

To some extent this may be because of mass culture. Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard, recently claimed that average Americans are smarter than they used to be. His evidence: in the 1960s the country’s favorite TV show was the Beverly Hillbillies; in the 2000s, it was West Wing. In his view, the silliness of the one versus the erudition of the other reveals the elevation of mass culture. We all have “moved up.”

Maybe, but an equally plausible reason that college graduates don’t stand out is that they are just as deeply mired in lowbrow culture as everyone else. Sports—college, professional, amateur—are today’s great levelers, along with entertainment emblems such as “American Idol,” “The Biggest Loser,” “Jersey Shore,” “The Bad Girls Club,” Lady Gaga and the technological world of Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.

The college graduate is part and parcel of this environment, and I haven’t noticed that graduates speak noticeably better than those who haven’t been to college. Their language, at best, reflects more the language of their parents and childhood peers, and every person under 30 seems to use the dreadful locution “me and Jan” as the subject of a sentence.

Personally, I don’t care terribly whether graduates sound educated or not; of greater concern is whether they are educated. But why doesn’t college provide the superficial veneer of respectability that it did in the past?

The answer is that it doesn’t provide the substance that it did in the past. College graduates rarely quote Shakespeare or even use his plots to illustrate points. Does anyone under age 50 ever allude to Plato’s cave? As Lee Doren says in his new e-book, “Please Enroll Responsibly,” students “aren’t receiving the education most people expect when they think of earning a degree.”

Of course, there are exceptions. And when it comes to their major fields, many students learn a lot because they are vocationally motivated and their professors are teaching what they love.

But few students get a solid grounding—or any grounding at all—in what used to be called “high culture”: the fundamental intellectual ideas that underlie modern society. Core curricula at most colleges have been tossed out the window. Of the 54 accredited colleges and universities in North Carolina, for example, just two require courses in U.S. government or history.

All in all, a college education doesn’t seem to make you anything special anymore.

We already have many reasons to suspect that college is fading as an essential ingredient in life—such as continuing cost increases and the uncertain value of a degree. 

If Americans once used college as a stepping-stone to a more respectable life, and that doesn’t work anymore, families are going to re-think spending thousands of dollars on higher education. Junior can just get a job and with the money he saves buy a—well, perhaps a Lamborghini.

Now that would move the family up in the estimation of the neighbors, wouldn’t it?