Don't Believe the Hype (About College)

04/25/2011 04:48 pm ET | Updated Jun 25, 2011

It's not what you think.

I'm a proud graduate of the University of Wisconsin (and two graduate schools). I loved college. And it's undeniable that the United States boasts some of the best universities in the world.

I'm also someone who flunked out my freshman year with a 0.6 GPA. In fact, I'd say it wasn't until I flunked out that I had a chance of being successful. I simply wasn't ready for what college was designed to give me (aside from the unsupervised social time).

Although my freshman-year GPA was surprisingly low, my freshman-year experience is unsurprisingly common. Too many young people simply aren't ready for college, for a variety of reasons -- meaning they either coast through four or five years and waste a ton of money along the way, or, if they're lucky, they crash and burn so badly that they discover, for the first time, what it is they actually want to do with their lives -- as opposed to what the adults in their lives have told them they should do.

I've been thinking about this a lot recently since reading Matthew Crawford's bestselling book, Shop Class as Soulcraft. Crawford, as you may know, got his doctorate in political philosophy from the University of Chicago -- and then left a cushy job at a DC think tank to open a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Virginia.

In this regard, Crawford is uniquely suited to comment on three inextricably linked aspects of modern society -- our public education system, our modern economy, and our shared values. And, as Crawford puts it, the news ain't good.

In some respects, the story starts in the 1990s, when shop class started to become a thing of the past, and educators started exclusively preparing students to be "knowledge workers" -- and stopped valuing the ancient notion that our hands are what make us the most intelligent of animals. Yet the clearest starting point stretches back much farther, to the early 20th century, the rise of Industrialism, and the concerted effort to separate thinking from doing -- and, in the process, to begin the degradation of "work" as we have come to know it.

Any historian is already familiar, for example, with Frederick Winslow Taylor and his 1911 book, Principles of Scientific Management. It was Taylor who wrote: "All possible brain work should be removed from the shop and centered in the planning department." It was Taylor who suggested that the modern workplace "will not have been realized until almost all of the machines in the shop are run by men who are of smaller caliber and attainments, and who are therefore cheaper than those required under the old system." And it was Taylor whose ideas led people like Ellwood Cubberly, a former head of Stanford University's Department of Education, to recommend in 1920 "giv[ing] up the exceedingly democratic idea that all are created equal.... Our schools are, in a sense, factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life."

What has this legacy begotten? According to Crawford, it has given us a society where the production of credentials (e.g., knowing how to graduate) matters more than the cultivation of anything real (e.g., knowing how to think). It has led us to devalue the specific skills of the craftsman, and overvalue the general knowledge of the office worker. And it has engendered the gradual WALL-E-fication of our culture, in which the larger goal becomes the creation of passive consumers whose assembly-line work environments -- be they the actual assembly line or the assembly-esque world of modern office work -- can only be cured by the illusory freedom we exercise when we choose different products to purchase.

The bigger concern, and the one that relates to my own skepticism about whether everyone should go to college, has to do with the changing nature of the workforce. As Princeton economist Alan Blinder has written: "The critical divide in the future may instead be between those types of work that are easily deliverable through a wire with little or no diminution in quality and those that are not. And this unconventional divide does not correspond well to traditional distinctions between jobs that require high levels of education and jobs that do not."

In other words, it's easier to imagine outsourcing your need for legal advice than your need for an electrician. But the point is not that no one should go to law school and everyone should become an electrician -- just that the goal of our schools, our economy, and our society should be to help people find work that engages their human capacities as fully as possible. And that's not happening. And that's a really big problem -- and one that will never be solved if our knee-jerk reaction is to urge every young person to go to college.

"The best sort of democratic education," says Crawford, "is neither snobbish nor egalitarian. Rather, it accords a place of honor in our common life to whatever is best [for each individual]." Amen, I say. So let's stop pretending that college by itself is a cure-all for every person. Let's start recalibrating our schools in ways that will help children discover their worth -- and acquire the skills they'll need to unleash their full potential on the world. And let's keep searching for ways to help people understand, in the deepest, fullest sense, what it means to be free.