Learning Smarter In The United States

Author’s Note: A more than sufficient companion for this piece would be to read through chapter III of Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges, a more exciting recommendation would be to go all the way through his short and astonishing book. 

Education in the United States

There are more than enough difficult questions to be answered and taxing problems to be solved across American society. Issues that unite people are dwindling, while polarizing conflicts continue to dominate our politics and our media. With that said, I think that one statement which remains entirely immune to partisanship is simply this — we need to improve our higher education system.

While America harbors a significant percentage of some of the finest colleges and universities in the world, the overall picture of the educational system is declining along some disturbing trends. These are not partisan issues, they cannot be equivocated, and they have the potential to be solved.

Financial Burdens

Perhaps the most obvious problem plaguing our higher education is its untenable financial burdens. Current projections indicate that a standard undergraduate degree could cost upwards of $500,000 by 2035. [1]

This estimate is based on the six percent upward trend in tuition costs per year, a number which is roughly double the average increase in automobile prices. It goes without saying that this usurious increase in tuition costs has created an exponential explosion in America’s student loan crisis.

In total, college graduates hold around 1.3 trillion dollars in debt based upon the most recent estimates, with the class of 2016 incurring an average of $37,172 per student. [2]

When you consider these devastating numbers in addition to America’s faltering jobs market and the fact that student loan debt is almost entirely immune to forgiveness, the picture shifts from grim to dire.

Unnecessary Administration

There are a wide variety of reasons for this immense growth in higher education costs, but one glaring issue is the overwhelming increase in administrative positions on nearly every campus. New York Times reporter Paul F. Campos noted that

Administrative positions at colleges and universities grew by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009, which Bloomberg reported was 10 times the rate of growth of tenured faculty positions. [3]

While salaries for professorships and full-time teaching positions have stagnated over the past several decades, there has been a huge increase in hiring administrators to fill positions that are increasingly esoteric and unrelated to the education of students.

Supplementing this issue is the fact that many of the country’s largest universities have been seduced by the financial lure of the NCAA and college sports. Forgoing expenditures that would have a direct impact on the education of students, institutions all across the country continue to pour funds into new stadiums and practice facilities.

This is happening while, simultaneously, the administrations are collecting huge sums of revenue from teams of “student-athletes”—who incur all the risks and none of the rewards of professional athletes. While teachers’ salaries have struggled to keep up with inflation since the 1970s, football coaches like John Harbaugh of Michigan and Nick Saban of Alabama rake in a cool nine and seven million dollars a year respectively.

Lost In The Woods

The underlying current that has produced these negative outcomes in our greatest schools, the tidal flow, is the same one that is driving American culture downwards across the spectrum. We have simply lost our way, forgotten what got us here and failed to see what is going to take us forward. Colleges and universities have been seduced by the unfettered capitalism that wreaks havoc at home and abroad, except for the ever-shrinking few at the top who reap absurd benefits. The notion of a “liberal arts degree” is seen as laughable in today’s society, by people who have learned in their college careers that the only purpose of an education is to work and produce wealth.

In her column for the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss reminds us that higher education really means,

Liberal, not as opposed to conservative, but as free, in contrast to imprisoned, subjugated, or incarcerated. Free citizens studied the trivium and quadrivium as part of their liberal education, as these skills were considered the ones that would enable them to function successfully as free citizens in society. [4]

We are increasingly turning out students, burdened with unforgivable debt, who have no concept of what their education was all about. If their learning did not open up a strong job market, or increase their chances of becoming a millionaire, then none of it mattered.

In his time spent at places like Harvard and Princeton, journalist Chris Hedges witnessed this moral and intellectual atrophy take place first hand. He notes that so many of the people graduating from our best schools are, “cultural philistines.” He continues with,

The specialized dialect and narrow education of doctors, academics, economists, social scientists, military officers, investment bankers, and government bureaucrats keeps each sector locked in its own narrow role. They exist to make the system work, not to examine it. – Chris Hedges  [5]

The irony, of course, is not lost on those of us who understand what education is truly intended to instill in us. We are being robbed of the tools to move ahead, at the very places where they were supposed to be granted to us.


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[1] http://www.cnbc.com/id/47565202

[2] http://www.ibtimes.com/student-debt-crisis-2016-new-graduates-owe-record-breaking-average-37000-loans-2365195

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/05/opinion/sunday/the-real-reason-college-tuition-costs-so-much.html

[4] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2015/04/02/what-the-liberal-in-liberal-arts-actually-means/

[5] Hedges, Chris. “3.” Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2010. p. 100, 98. Print.