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Why College Degrees Might Not Be Worth It: A Response to Phillip Dolitsky

Why do we so closely associate having degrees with the scholarly life? Most jobs, including the highest-prestige white-collar jobs, do not involve sitting around thinking lofty thoughts and reading deeply fascinating books all day. Instead, you could go to college to learn how to read Plato and Dante and Locke, and then go off to find a job which presents genuine intellectual puzzles that interest you, regardless of whether that job requires a college degree or not.

Is the Scholarly Life Still Worth Pursuing?” Phillip Dolitsky recently asked at Public Discourse. The answer depends on what is meant by “scholarly life.” Dolitsky is specifically asking about whether it is worth entering a PhD program in strategic studies. But his question can be applied more broadly. Is it still worth going to college at all?

Let’s begin by considering a rather curious book: Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, by Matthew Crawford. The most important part of this book is the author himself. As one of my students put it, “This is a book which could only have been written by one person who ever lived.” Crawford has a PhD in political philosophy from the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, one of the most selective PhD programs in the world. Crawford’s job when he wrote this book? He repaired motorcycles. Note: he wasn’t repairing motorcycles because he couldn’t get another job. He chose this life.

A Tale of Three Jobs

Crawford’s life is a tale of three jobs, all described in the book. First, with a Master’s degree in hand, he took a job at a firm that provides abstracts of technical academic articles. In theory, this is the sort of job that requires a high level of education, intelligence, and an amazing ability to communicate. You get assigned an article, read it, and write a one paragraph summary for an audience too busy to read all these articles in their entirety. Sounds impressive, right?

The job was a living hell. Crawford was expected to write twenty-four abstracts a day on research papers far from anything resembling his area of expertise. Imagine a political philosopher trying to read and then write brilliant summaries of a technical paper in biology in twenty minutes or less. Then repeat that process over and over all day every day. It was obvious to Crawford, as it should be obvious to everyone else, that Crawford’s twenty-minute summary of a paper far beyond his expertise is precisely worthless. Now imagine the feeling of doing that job day after day. It is the worst sort of anti-intellectual work you can imagine.

So Crawford goes back to college, gets a PhD and ends up at a think tank. Ah, you might think, now this is the sort of job that requires real education, intelligence, and communication skills. Does Crawford now enjoy the fruits of his education—thinking deep thoughts about important subjects? Not at all. It turns out that most think tank research is predetermined to attract donors who will fund the whole operation.

Crawford leaves the think tank world and sets up shop repairing vintage motorcycles. You don’t have to know a thing about motorcycles to read with rapt attention as Crawford describes the thought process involved in solving real problems with tangible machines. Something isn’t working right and the mechanic has to diagnose the problem and come up with a way to fix it.  It all sounds like the work of a medical doctor, without the HMO and threats of a malpractice case hovering in the background.

You come up with an imagined a train of causes for manifest symptoms and judge their likelihood before tearing anything down. This imagining relies on a stock mental library, not of natural kinds or structures, like that of the surgeon, but rather the functional kinds of an internal combustion engine . . . The factory service manuals tell you to be systematic in eliminating variables, but they never take into account the risks of working on old machines. So you have to develop your own decision tree for the particular circumstances. The problem is that at each node of this new tree, your own unquantifiable risk aversion introduces ambiguity. . . . What is required then is the kind of judgment that arises only from experience; hunches rather than rules. I quickly realized there was more thinking going on in the bike shop than in my previous job at the think tank.

This is work that involves thought, lots of thought. Job performance is unambiguous: either the problem is fixed or it isn’t. There are obstacles along the way, rusted bolts or inadequate tools. At the end of the day, there is the satisfaction of a job well done.

Now imagine a cocktail party attended by someone with each of those three jobs. There is no doubt that the first two are socially respectable among the college-educated. The mechanic . . . well, that is a blue-collar job, and we all know what that means. The first two jobs sound scholarly; the mechanic uses his hands for a living. You are impressed with the first two jobs; you are not impressed by the mechanic.

Yet, if you look honestly at those three jobs and ask yourself which one involves the most thinking, the ability to solve difficult problems by puzzling them out, there is no doubt at all that it is the mechanic. Why is this the case? Crawford points to Aristophanes’ portrait of Socrates:

We take a very partial view of knowledge when we regard it as the sort of thing that can be gotten while suspended aloft in a basket. This is to separate knowing from doing, treating students like disembodied brains in jars. . . . To regard universal knowledge as the whole of knowledge is to take no account of embodiment and purposiveness. . . . If thinking is bound up with action, then the task of getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on our doing stuff in it. And in fact this is the case: to really know shoelaces, you have to tie shoes.

In other words, Crawford is being serious in the title of his book; we craft our souls in shop class. Sustained, direct experience with some facet of the world is the only way real learning occurs.

 

What Does College Prepare You to Do?

College is often thought to prepare students for a job involving “critical thinking.” But what does college actually prepare students to do? It is, as Crawford notes, perfectly structured to prepare a student for a life of being a clerk. “[C]ollege habituates young people to accept as the normal course of things a mismatch between form and content, official representations and reality. This cannot be called cynicism if it is indispensable to survival in the contemporary office, as it was in the old Soviet Union.” Both college and most of what we call white-collar jobs are designed “to replace intuitive judgements of practitioners with rule following, and codify knowledge into abstract systems of symbols that then stand in for situated knowledge.”

The root of the problem is directly the result of the promise of college:

The egalitarian worry that has always attended tracking students into “college prep” and “vocational ed” is overlaid with another: the fear that acquiring a specific skill set means that one’s life is determined. In college, by contrast, many students don’t learn anything of particular application; college is the ticket to an open future. Craftsmanship entails learning to do one thing really well, while the ideal of the new economy is to be able to learn new things, celebrating potential rather than achievement.

This sets up a curious internal contradiction. College promises to prepare students for a job but then does not want to teach any particular skills, anything that could be called craftsmanship. If the point of college is training for an open-ended career, then it is no wonder that, for so many students, the emphasis of their education is on navigating bureaucracies and speech codes rather than chemistry and history.

A Scholarly Life

Is it worth it to go to college? If the question is fundamentally about a career, then the answer is not nearly an obvious “yes,” as our culture seems to suggest it is. If going to college means amassing debt in order to end up as a clerk, a thoughtless drone in a cubicle, then it is worth considering the alternative. A master’s degree does not necessarily result in a higher paying or more intellectual job. A skilled blue-collar worker can earn a higher salary, not have any college debt, and most importantly, spend the day actually thinking about how to solve particular problems. The downside is the cocktail party test above: people will assume you couldn’t find that prestigious job as a writer of technical abstracts.

 

Getting a job, however, is not the only reason to go to college. What if the point of college is to discover and practice the joy of learning? What if people are more than simply walking jobs? What if people are created in the image of God for a purpose other than career? If the reason you want to go to college is to learn how to be a complete person, develop an interior scholarly life, become the type of person who can read Shakespeare for pleasure, then college might be the most amazing experience of your life.

But, what about the job you will get after college? It sounds nice to say you can earn a good salary as an electrician or a plumber or a mechanic. But what if you want a job where you can read and think about topics that fascinate you?

That question reveals the underlying bias of the age. We tend to confuse the scholarly life with what one does during the working hours. Isn’t it possible for a mechanic to go home and read Plato? And, conversely, isn’t it possible for the junior analyst at an investment bank, a law clerk, or a programmer (all credentialed positions) to spend their leisure hours getting drunk and watching reality TV?

Most jobs, including the highest-prestige white-collar jobs, do not involve sitting around thinking lofty thoughts and reading deeply fascinating books all day. You can go to college to learn how to read Plato and Dante and Locke, and then go off to find a job that presents genuine intellectual puzzles that interest you, regardless of whether that job requires a college degree or not. After all, is your goal to have a job that requires a college degree or to have a job you actually enjoy?

Is a PhD Worth It?

Which brings us to Dolitsky’s question with which we started this rumination: Is it worth it to get a PhD? The answer to that depends entirely on one’s motivation to be in graduate school. If someone wants to be in a PhD program purely for the joy of learning more about a subject, the opportunity to think long and hard about topic of particular interest, then the answer is obvious. If the work one does in graduate school is its own reward, then it is well worth doing.

But the difficulty of the decision looms large if one’s motivation is what happens after one goes to graduate school. If one aspires to be a tenured professor at a place that values research and teaching, will graduate school fulfill that aspiration? Having a PhD is necessary to becoming a tenured professor, but it is also clearly not sufficient. It’s impossible to determine whether it is even likely. The academy as a whole is in the midst of a massive upheaval; someone applying to graduate school today will not hit the academic job market for another six to ten years. It is difficult to guess about what that job market will look like. Indeed, it is getting harder to predict how desirable an academic job will be in a decade. Don’t get me wrong: I love my job as a tenured college professor. But I wonder what this job will be like for my junior colleagues when they get to be my age. I am not so certain it will still be a desirable job.

Once again, though: Why do we so closely associate higher education with the scholarly life? William Faulkner worked at the post office. Albert Einstein worked at the patent office. T.S. Eliot spent his days working at a bank. Looking back through history, one finds a wealth of people who had a day job distinct from their intellectual life.

Another way of putting it: Is it worth getting a PhD in political theory if one is going to end up working as a motorcycle repairman? Does your answer change if you knew that guy covered in grease at 5:00 goes home to write political philosophy books—books only he could write?

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