Wednesday, July 7, 2010

College: the ivory tower crumbles

the ivory tower crumbles


As concerns education, its purpose as presently envisaged is to enable persons to be "productive" within the context of industrial society.

~Thomas Berry, The Great Work ~

Warning: This article is blasphemous. How can a former professor of history and psychology write an article with this title? Is the author simply a disgruntled doomer who has become hopelessly cynical?

First, let me begin by expressing my gratitude for four years of solid university education. I'm equally grateful for advanced degrees in history and counseling. I'm grateful for help from my parents and being able to live in an economy where I could work, pay my bills, and actually save money for tuition. I attended college at a particularly exciting time in history, also majoring in that subject as an undergraduate, my minor being, so to speak, student activism.

Secondly, I'm grateful for the years I served as an adjunct professor and the responsiveness of many of my students to the myriad ways I illuminated them about the Long Emergency and taught them how to prepare. I know firsthand that I made a difference in many lives.

I completed my last semester of teaching in the summer of 2009, and as I drove across the United States to my new home in Boulder, Colorado, I knew unequivocally that I could not return to a traditional classroom and maintain any semblance of sanity. (No worries because there weren't any teaching jobs available anyway.) In fact, the deterioration I saw in institutional policies and students' abilities and motivation with respect to learning within just the span of three years were jaw-dropping. The end result, I was certain, would be a society approximating that portrayed in the movie "Idiocracy", and so it may well be as public education continues to unravel and increasingly become a direct pipeline to prison.

As I have collaborated with colleagues over the past decade, their stories are virtually carbon copies of mine: Students whose basic reading, writing, and math skills are abysmal, even if they graduated in the top one percent of their high school class; no interest in learning for the sake of learning; willingness to do whatever it takes, including constructing elaborate, blatant cheating schemes, in order to get the grade they want; an unwillingness to take responsibility for their education and making the grades they want-and even an absence of any sense of how to do so. All of this with no clue about why a college education could be useful other than to secure a professional position. Some cherish other vapid reasons for attending college such as the one a colleague recently shared with me. When she asked one of her students why she was attending college, the student replied with, "I want to be able to know where to look things up so I can find answers." As we all know, no one needs to attend college in order to learn that particular skill.

But that is only one skill for which attending college is unnecessary.

So why are so many parents still hellbent on sending their kids to college, and why are so many young people determined to attend? Isn't a college education good for something? Is it a complete waste?

I would be the first to champion a college education in 2010 if college students arrived from high schools where they had mastered basic academic skills, if they were passionately in love with learning for the sake of learning, and if they understood what it means to be solely responsible for one's own education-beginning with: If you study, you are likely to pass or do well, and if you don't study, you probably won't pass, and you'll do poorly. But in the first decade of the 21st century, these are not the qualities with which the majority of students embark on the journey of so-called higher education.

Like owning one's own home, like the three-car garage, like the burgeoning professional career, like the nuclear family with its 2.6 children, like the 401K and something called "retirement", a college education has been for at least six decades, an integral part of the American dream. That dream and all of the components of it which I have just enumerated is now being embalmed in the funeral parlor of industrial civilization's collapse.

In a civilization based on endless growth accomplished through endless debt, the masters of the fraudulent financial universe realized very quickly that the American dream could be a debt-dream which would permanently enslave the dreamers and increase their own stock portfolios. Along with their sub-prime, "sub-slime" NINJA (no income, no job, no assets) home loans, they designed a system in which students in an economy that the masters were helping obliterate could rack up tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt from which they could never escape until it was paid off.

Moreover, the entire college education scheme fulfilled their game plan even further because they had successfully turned colleges and universities into corporations in which students were not trained to think critically but to saunter sycophantically through four years of indoctrination in how to become a corporate citizen, how to do whatever it takes to achieve the American-debt dream, and how to graduate to a lifelong career of raping, pillaging, and plundering the earth.

And now that unemployment is heading toward levels unseen since the Great Depression, American debt-dreamers can no longer pay mortgages or continue making student loan payments. One of my favorite headlines regarding the latter appeared in May: "Class of 2010 set to flood U.S. job market as '09 graduates wait tables."

Whereas a college education was once a ticket to gainful employment shortly after discarding the cap and gown, not only is there a dearth of professional jobs, but many graduates remain as devoid of intellectual acumen as they were upon entering college. Today's Business Insider online carries a story "This Manufacturer Can't Find 100 Unemployed Americans With Basic Math Skills to Hire." The story opens with: "Here's the ugly side of the U.S. unemployment problem that would be political suicide for a politician to highlight. Current U.S. unemployment isn't just about a lack of job creation from companies, outsourcing, or a lack of trade protections. Sometimes it's just due to a lack of skills on the part of Americans."

Yesterday in his blog, Doug Casey opined that going to college no longer serves any purpose unless one attends an Ivy League school in which social and professional connections can be established which will stand one in good stead in the Second Great Depression. Casey argues that travel is one of the best ways to become educated, and he refers readers to The Teaching Company which offers CD and DVD courses by some of the most gifted scholars-courses which one can take at one's own pace for the sake of learning particular skills or bodies of knowledge. However, I would add that if one is going to travel, one should do it now while that option is still available, and one should bear in mind that travel does not necessarily mean journeying to exotic places. One of the most profound learning experiences of my life was spending one year in Southeastern Ohio near the Amish community there and working closely with members of the community.

At Post Peak Living, company president Andre Angelantoni offers online courses including "The Uncrash Course" for understanding and preparing for intensifying stages of the Long Emergency. Also available is a course on "Post-Peak Livelihoods" with Sarah Edwards, Ph.D. and Paul Edwards, J.D.

In 2006 I was deeply moved by Anya Kamenetz's first book Generation Debt. At that time I was in the throes of college teaching and watched everything the author articulated in her book played out with my then-current students before and after their graduation. Anya more than anyone else at that time examined the student loan hell that most college students had unknowingly signed up for or perhaps signed up for but did not want to think about until they were forced to, post-graduation. More recently Anya has authored DIYU (Do It Yourself University): Edpunks, Edupreneurs, and The Coming Transformation of Higher Education . Anya writes optimistically about revolutionary new forms of higher education that will essentially be about students educating themselves for their own reasons, not necessarily to acquire a degree or traditional employment. Regardless of how many of Kamenetz's projections become future reality, one thing is certain: In a post-industrial world, DIY will be the modus operandi for most human activity.

As industrial civilization continues its descent; as unemployment expands over the next decade, perhaps to the point where jobs as we have known them no longer exist; as Peak Oil dictates dramatic constrictions in local and long-distance travel; as larger systems crumble and communities are forced to come together to save their local places or face extinction; as food production becomes intensely local, and as everyone is forced to downsize every aspect of life, we need to stop preparing youth for a world that no longer exists and start preparing them for a new economy and a new culture built around local cooperation and earth stewardship as opposed to global competition and endless growth.

Young people, and in fact all who are able, need to learn practical, tangible skills for navigating a post-petroleum, post industrial world. While many college-age people are opting to learn farming and food production skills, those represent only a handful of skills that will be needed in the Long Emergency. Training in natural healing, emergency response and first aid, permaculture principles of design, teaching basic education in home school or ad hoc settings, operating small businesses that serve and are supported by the local economy, metal and woodworking, electrical wiring and repair, bee keeping, ham radio operating, manufacture of clothing and shoes, water purification and storage, fuel storage, firearms and self-defense skills-all of these skills will be desperately needed in the future.

There is little time left to learn and hone these skills. Very soon they will be desperately needed, and few people will have them. For this reason, individuals of all ages would be wise to "graduate" from graduating from college and abdicate the American debt-dream in every aspect of life. However, if you are already in college and you feel compelled to graduate, and if doing so does not consign you to a life of debt servitude, by all means, complete your college journey. What matters most is that you do not become indebted and that you learn marketable skills that will embellish and fulfill your academic achievements-skills which will be saleable when jobs as we know them today no longer exist.

Training in skills marketable in the Long Emergency may require taking some college courses, but student loans and extraneous courses should be avoided. The problem is not college per se but the four-year college education pipe dream package which as the Long Emergency intensifies, delivers little except a very expensive ticket to nowhere.

In the 21st century, we are drowning in information, but dying of thirst for wisdom. I define wisdom as the ability to apply information holistically to one's life. It includes qualities such as discernment, far-sightedness, prudence, insightfulness, deliberation, tact, and frugality. It also includes intuition and the willingness to follow one's instincts even when they counter conventional wisdom.

I believe that the wisest, most astute, and most radical educator is nature. In The Great Work , Thomas Berry defines the ideal education as earth-centered and therefore "sensitizing of the human to those profound communications made by the universe about us, by the sun and moon and stars, the clouds and rain, the contours of the Earth and all its living forms."

World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms offers college-age youth accommodations, food, and opportunities to learn about organic farming. On and off-campus permaculture training opportunities abound throughout the world. Permaculture is both a science and a holistic perspective which can be applied to virtually any discipline or task on earth. As for acquiring other skills, any student motivated to learn specific skills needed in the Long Emergency can research opportunities to do so and weigh his/her options. Moreover, groups of individuals who have mastered certain skills have formed and are forming enterprises and education centers where they can cooperatively and profitably train others.

I see everywhere eruptions of Long Emergency education, but it is rarely found in corporatized institutions dependent on state funding and debt-dream dazed student consumers who subserviently think, live, and breathe inside the parameters dictated by industrial civilization. I am humbled and awed by the increasing numbers of college-age women and men I meet who are "graduating" from graduating from four years of college and a lifetime of unemployment and debt. The ivory tower is crumbling, but increasing numbers of innovative youth are constructing a new paradigm and new ways of utilizing their gifts. In the process they are redefining education and employment and revolutionizing our increasingly obsolete notions of what it means to become a "productive" citizen and an educated human being.

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