February 20, 2005

Trucking School Revisited

I've been catching a rash from family members about one of my most popular posts, Send Your Kids to Trucking School, which basically was a discussion of the opportunity cost of going to college instead of going to work.

My grown-up daughter writes:

This is a quality of life issue for me. The truckers I met in El Paso (at soccer games) were away from their families a week at a time. There are no good books for sale at truck stops, nor can one find a decent salad on the road. Keep your 50 grand and gas station showers, I'll treasure my MFA and continue to ask, "Would you like mustard on that Sir?"

Grumpy confuses me...

This is an odd position to take for one so learned. Are you going to suggest that your daughters go for the bucks instead of college education? Should they do without canonical works of art, literature, and philosophy? What about basic science? I suppose it is possible to learn this stuff on your own, but then you would miss the brown rice stir fry at the vegetarian dorm and the kickin' keggers, dude.

(Elder Daughter dropped out of high school at 16 after getting a G.E.D., and worked as a fry cook for awhile before going to community college and then Berkeley. She knew about something besides school, knew she could support herself, and thus was in a different placed than most college kids.)

She goes on:

In defense of art history majors...

Did you know that art history majors do very well on the LSAT? They know how to observe closely, write, research, and construct a convincing argument.

Part of my reply went this way:

[A younger daughter]has written that she wants to go to Yale, Harvard or Princeton. If she wants to learn what they have to teach, God bless her, but the economics don't necessarily work out. The university system is bloated and full of cant (as opposed of course, to our justice system, where everyone is pithy and efficient).

I remember my Biology and American History classes from Andover (although the best thing about biology was the musty conservatory with the lizards and such). I remember the great books teacher (a professor of Russian lit) who was all gnarled and twisted and said that life was misery and pain. I learned French in college and can actually read it, and speak it (sort of). I remember my English teacher, Dudley Fitts, tell a story about Saul Bellow asking a Yale graduate seminar, filled with graduate students steeped in the New Criticism, about Odysseus, "Doesn't anybody feel sorry for the poor bastard?" I don't actually remember much else from course work.

College time is better spent in the stacks or the studio. As with middle school and television, don't believe most of what they tell you, don't do crystal meth, get some fresh air and exercise, and you'll be fine.

My sister weighed in:

Who cares about the economics (except the parents)? If you are inspired by professors, classmates, dormitory rap sessions (probably called something else these days since rap has a whole new meaning), a private college may be worth the expense even if the net present value calculations never work out.

I once estimated that my years in business school didn't pay off for about 12 years. But I never had to flip burgers either.

(We won't talk about her suicidal friends from college days.)

Some thoughts, off the cuff:

Admittedly, I am a child of my culture and my milieu, and the "Trucking School" piece was partly (but only partly) tongue-in-cheek.

It's clear that Elder Daughter and Sister have a more positive view of what goes on in colleges nowadays than I do, and what the payoff (pecuniary or intellectual) is. I think in many universities, there's an homogeneity in support of ideological balderdash, a kowtowing to ethnic politics; a decline of emphasis on the canon, a lack of moral standards and control for kids who are often too young to be left unparented in co-ed dorms, and most of all, a disconnect from the realities of the outside world. All of these can be problems. Some professors, maybe most, have been in school their whole lives.

That's not to say you shouldn't go there (especially if you've spent some time outside of school) if you want to learn something they alone teach, like Ethiopic, topology, or the Greek anthology. Or if you make a conscious decision to go to say, Yale, to make connections. Or if you must, because you aspire to a profession that requires a bachelor's degree.

It's still a mug's game in many ways, and the economic benefits are, to a degree, illusory. (As Sister's comment confirms, although the issues about professional schools are not the same, otherwise.)

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