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The Imperiled Promise of College and Why I Think I Should Have Frank Bruni’s Job

As if college kids have enough to worry about.

Now there´s Frank Bruni, columnist at the New York Times, adding yet another middle-aged voice to the choir of anxious parents discouraging their kids from majoring in art history. Not surprisingly, the tone of his column was nostalgic:

For a long time and for a lot of us, “college” was more or less a synonym for success. We had only to go. We had only to graduate. And if we did, according to parents and high-school guidance counselors and everything we heard and everything we read, we could pretty much count on a career, just about depend on a decent income and more or less expect security.

But today, the college=career promise is dead or on life support. With rising tuitions, suffocating competition, and crushing student loan debt, kids today can no longer bet on a college diploma to get them that dream job in middle management.

But it´s not all college-goers who are feeling the pain. The shrewd ones go into accounting and teaching, where they are practically drowning in jobs upon graduation. With their 40K/year salary and 401K, they are the truly society´s golden children, envied and exalted by all, including their former classmates who foolishly chose to immerse themselves in irrelevant things like writing and history:

I single out philosophy and anthropology because those are two fields – along with zoology, art history and humanities – whose majors are least likely to find jobs reflective of their education level, according to government projections quoted by the Associated Press. But how many college students are fully aware of that? How many reroute themselves into, say, teaching, accounting, nursing or computer science, where degree-relevant jobs are easier to find? Not nearly enough, judging from the angry, dispossessed troops of Occupy Wall Street.

Foolish children! Why didn´t you major in nursing or teaching? You have no one to blame for your poverty but yourselves!

Alas, there is hope, thanks to Bruni: just use taxes to incentivize students to take that Calculus class:

I´d … call for government and university incentives to steer students into the fields of studies that will serve them and society best. We use taxes to influence behavior. Why not student aid?

Because we all know that the central government is really the best actor to decide which fields and skills society needs more or less of.

I don´t think Bruni is a central planner at heart. I think he had to conclude with such a Soviet-style recommendation because his general argument is scattered. That is, while he seems to place authority in market-directed cues (e.g. the Humanities are obsolete because they no longer pay), he is at a loss to explain why microeconomic processes are not successfully solving the problem (e.g. why students still go into the Humanities despite their poor job prospects).

Bruni implies that the root of the problem lays squarely in Universities, or, more specifically, Humanities programs that devilishly lure students into their jobless, Plato-reading lairs. Thus the government has to correct for the obstinate Ivory Tower.

To argue that a liberal arts education is less amenable to vocational expertise than math or engineering in simply off base. The fact is, neither Math nor Philosophy are more likely to teach “real-life” job stills. A post-secondary Math education has always been highly theoretical, and most folks don´t need to know how to prove Pythagoras´s theorem in order to work at a bank. The vast majority of people learn how to do a job on the job (or at an unpaid internship the summer before), regardless of what they studied.

What Bruni fails to recognize is that the college=career promise has always been dependent on two interrelated institutions: universities and the job market. And while Bruni spends this column ruminating on where the University went wrong, the job market is left unexplored, obscuring the vital role employers and economic players have played in rising unemployment and the destruction of the American dream. As one insightful commentator noted:

Before he consigns the Humanities to the dustbin, Frank Bruni might reflect on the reasons he himself chose a dead-end major during the Reagan administration (English, UNC, ’86). Most Humanities majors choose for love, which is no bad thing… Education is not reducible to vocational training. Frank Bruni enjoys a liberal arts education and it is disappointing to see him advocate withholding it from others. [Emphasis mine]

So while Bruni´s nostalgia is well justified, it is nonetheless misplaced. It use to be that kids entered college, graduated, and then enjoyed the opportunity to learn a vocation through an entry-level position, supported by an employer who was willing to invest in the human capital that employee embodied. It is that last step that has disappeared in recent decades, and is thus responsible for rising youth unemployment.

And what is responsible for this sea change? Why are there no entry level jobs? Why are employers no longer willing to train newcomers? And why do college graduates today find the ol´ climbing-the-ladder so remarkable unappealing?

I would argue, albeit suggestively, that the problem lies not in the new generation (those grimy, entitled Occupiers) but the old (those sanctimonious, never-retiring Baby Boomers). After all, they were the ones that ushered in the trend of vocational self-actualization: that rebel, do-what-you-love, screw-the-Man way of life that leads folks moving around firm to firm looking for their dream job.

Remember that the Baby Boomers were reacting to their parents who insisted that a job´s a job, and that there´s no shame in being a postal worker if it puts food on the table. But my generation grew up with hover parenting and gifted programs. We were taught that everyone´s special and everyone can get that dream job as a model/actress/philosopher. Just look at the dominant cultural archetypes of self-realization presented in baby boomer-created film and television programming, demanding that a creative and fulfilling life be nested completely in sexy careers such as rogue cop, starving artist, fashion editor, or New York Times columnist.

Young people were raised (by Baby Boomers) to “follow our dreams”, and being an accountant did not qualify as a legitimate dream. But now there are no dream jobs because our parents´ generation won´t leave them. And employers have given up trying to invest in an entry-level worker when they are likely to leave short after. (The average person born in the latter years of the baby boom held 11 jobs from age 18 to age 44.)

What can folks like Bruni do to help? Forget the Humanities tax. Leave your job, take a job as an accountant, and let some 20-something person work as a columnist for the Times. I am available.