Trade School

In his funny, funny book Class (Ballentine, 1983), Paul Fussell makes regular mention of the class insecurity of those not born to power, and the often inept ways that they (well, okay, we) attempt to purchase the trappings of higher-class life, usually misreading the cues and heading down well meaning but unhelpful paths. And of course, higher ed comes under particular scrutiny:

In A Nation of Strangers [author Vance Packard] writes cheerfully, “in 1940, about 13 percent of college-age young people actually went to college; by 1970 it was about 43 percent.” But no. It was still about 13 percent, the other 30 percent attending things merely denominated colleges. These poor kids and their parents were performing the perpetual American quest not for intellect but for respectability and status. (152-53)

Really, though, who goes to college for intellect? Those relative handful of kids who can afford to take four unproductive years for a life of the mind, knowing that they’ll land on their feet. Why does everybody else (now over two-thirds of high school grads) go to college?

  • Because they’re supposed to, it’s 13th grade
  • Because their friends are going to college
  • Because there aren’t many meaningful alternatives; 18-year-olds tend not to have lots of career options at hand
  • Because they don’t want to enlist in the armed services
  • Because there are more and more seats available, and more and more college recruiters making the pitch
  • Because high school guidance counsellors have defaulted to college as the only meaningful post-high-school option


  • Because they think it’ll get them a job.

You, fair-haired doctoral student, are a freak. You love ideas. You’re enamored of your field, you find it endlessly curious and rewarding, you evangelize it at every turn. But your students, and their families, and the US Department of Labor, and your state’s governor, and probably your college’s senior administration, are all looking to you instead for marketable expertise that can be reliably installed in even the most uninterested and unprepared minds. That’s why they’ve collectively borrowed well over a trillion dollars, to try to invest in some degree of job security in their adulthoods.

I taught a course a couple of years ago, for master’s students in their third semester and beyond. There were ten students in the course. At the end of the semester, I gave three of them a well-deserved A in the course. But in the post-semester depression that so often occurs, I looked back at their work, and realized that my A students were writing about as well, and thinking about as clearly, as my B-level freshmen at Duke fifteen years earlier.

And it’s not their fault. It’s a two-generation redefinition of what college means, what college is for. We have opened an extraordinarily expensive and wide-ranging array of trade schools.