I come from a family background that was conflicted on the question of education. On the one hand, my grandparents (who raised me from the time I was three) realized that whatever hope I was to have of a better life than they’d had hinged on school. As such, there was never a moment in my life, once I was old enough to grasp the concept of what school was, when I didn’t simply assume that I’d go to college.
Growing up, I understood that learning came first. My grandmother taught me to read when I was four, and by the time I entered first grade I was reading on the fourth grade level, at least. My grandfather taught me math, and when I was five I could do fairly complicated problem strings that included long division. If there was homework to do, that came before play, and it was made clear that if my grades ever slipped, I wouldn’t be allowed to play sports at all. If I made an A they were happy. If I made an A- they were rather pointed in wanting to know what had gone wrong. Bs were unacceptable, and if I’d made a C I simply wouldn’t have gone home.
On education, then, there was no compromise. Up to a point, that is.
A Frivolous Young Man
There came a time, not long after I entered Wake Forest University in August of 1979, when I began to learn things that troubled them. I hadn’t gone around the bend politically yet, so that wasn’t a huge problem, but religion certainly was. A number of things were happening around the same time.
- Wake was in the process of divorcing the Southern Baptist Convention, and I had grown up Southern Baptist. Still was Southern Baptist, in fact. My church at the time was full of people with strongly held, if not entirely well-informed opinions, and my sense that the SBC (which had been making all the decisions but had only been paying 6% of the freight) was a rabid albatross flailing around the school’s neck was not uniformly popular back on the home front.
- The SBC itself, which had historically been dominated by its “moderate” wing, was in the process of being sacked by its “conservative” wing. I knew we had sailed past the point of no return when I saw that Baylor University president Abner McCall – a man who struck me as politically somewhere to the right of Torquemada – was running for the organization’s presidency … as the moderate.
- Since Wake was an outstanding Liberal Arts university with a bright, inquisitive student body, my mind was in the process of broadening, and doing so with a speed that scared the hell out of my grandparents. The course that I will always remember as the tipping point, the 15-week period where the conservative boy died and the free-thinking young man was born, was Old Testament. Having the facts of the OT set before me that way permanently killed off my ability to trust those who had taught me growing up. And lest you think that the professor, Dr. Hamrick, was some kind of wild-eyed pinko, it should be noted that he taught Sunday School at Wake Forest Baptist Church, which was an SBC member institution.
My grandfather (as well as my father, who lived nearby and still played a minor role in my life) had some firm ideas about education, though, and their devotion to it was not unconditional. Some things that you learned in school were useful, while some things were frivolous, if not outright false. The term for the latter was “book learnin’.” This was an epithet, to be sure, and while it may be possible to utter the term without sneering I never saw anyone around my house actually try.
Useful education was practical. My grandfather would say something to the effect that “an engineer can always find work,” although at that point I still didn’t have a firm grasp on what an engineer actually did. The fact that I attended a university with no engineering program didn’t help. My father’s dream was that I’d become a lawyer (which to him meant that he’d have lifetime access to free legal counsel) and that was my plan when I entered college. However, that idea died abruptly at 2:00 am one Sunday during my sophomore year as I was walking my girlfriend back to her dorm. It was located across the street from the law school, and a first floor study lounge faced the street. It was full of law students, seemingly buried beneath large books. To my youthful way of thinking, hard work was like a fight with the school bully. You don’t run from it, but you don’t go looking for it, either.
Once it became clear that I wasn’t going to be an attorney, it pretty much all became an exercise in frivolity for Dad.
My grandfather didn’t live to see me head off to Iowa State in 1987, where I was going to learn to be a professional poet and a professor thereof. My father did, though, and I’m almost certain that he never bragged about it when he and his buddies got together to drink and shoot pool.
Granddaddy wouldn’t have understood the poetry, I don’t think, although a part of him would have been proud that I had become the first in the family’s history to graduate from college. Neither he nor my grandmother could have ever dreamed that I’d go to graduate school. Had she lived to see me earn a PhD, I imagine Grandmother’s chest would have just about burst with pride. By then I had decided I was going to be a professor, and that would have been something that both she and Granddaddy would have valued because teaching was a noble profession.
America and the Useful Arts
So, as I say, the question of education was occasionally conflicted in the Smith household, and in so many ways we were archetypally American. As fate would have it, I wound up writing about the persistently utilitarian character of education in the US when it came time for my dissertation.
These ideologies powerfully informed the emerging American character, at once influencing cultural development and being reinforced by it. No institution was exempt from the technotopian dream. The nation’s teaching and research systems, for instance, were and still are dramatically influenced by a utopian faith in the transformational power of applied science. To be sure, America developed and nurtured some of the finest Liberal Arts schools in the world: we think immediately of private schools like Harvard, but some of these schools were publicly funded (like the University of North Carolina, the first state-sponsored university in the country). But while the society tolerated the belief in education for its own sake, it also invested more heavily in the idea of applied education than perhaps any culture in Western history. John Dewey, one of America’s most insightful commentators on education, justifies the utilitarian approach, arguing that science is only honorable in application.
Since “application” signifies recognized bearing upon human existence and well-being, honor of what is “pure” and contempt for what is “applied” has for its outcome a science which is remote and technical, communicable only to specialists, and a conduct of human affairs which is haphazard, biased, unfair in distribution of values…. Science is converted into knowledge in its honorable and emphatic sense only in application. Otherwise it is truncated, blind, distorted. When it is applied, it is in ways which explain the unfavorable sense so often attached to “application” and the “utilitarian”: namely, use for pecuniary ends to the profit of a few (Dewey Public and Its Problems 174).
He contends that the split between pure and applied science is artificial, with the result being a damaging application of science to human affairs instead of an integration within them. This “knowledge divided against itself” fuels the “enslavement of men, women and children in factories in which they are animated machines to tend inanimate machines.”
The glorification of “pure” science under such conditions is a rationalization of an escape; it marks a construction of an asylum of refuge, a shirking of responsibility. The true purity of knowledge exists not when it is uncontaminated by contact with use and service. It is a wholly moral matter, an affair of honesty, impartiality and generous breadth of intent in search and communication. The adulteration of knowledge is due not to its use, but to vested bias and prejudice, to one-sidedness of outlook, to vanity, to conceit of possession and authority, to contempt or disregard of human concern in its use (175-176).
The ultimate institutional expression of utilitarianism in American education is found in the Morrill Land Grant Act. The original Act of 1862 initiated a movement which saw a second Act in 1890 and 1994 legislation aimed at developing educational resources on Native American lands, and has to date resulted in the chartering of over a hundred public universities in all 50 states and several territories (USDA).
In more complex terms, the land-grant movement is the expression and diffusion of certain political, social, economic, and educational ideals. The motives typically attributed to the movement involve the democratization of higher education; the development of an educational system deliberately planned to meet utilitarian ends, through research and public service as well as instruction; and a desire to emphasize the emerging applied sciences, particularly agricultural science and engineering (Williams Origins of Federal Support 1).
The Land Grant movement’s ultimate goal, though, was far broader than the simple production of technically expert farmers and engineers. Its early supporters were intent on shaping these institutions into comprehensive centers devoted to “the liberal, scientific, and even civic education of well-rounded men and women” (Williams 7). Land-grant colleges and universities were designed to be closely connected to the daily life of the communities they served. The scholars produced by these schools were groomed to be productive and pragmatically-minded members and leaders of the society, and to that end the schools’ research missions were unambiguously utilitarian.
To put it a little more simply, in Europe there has always been a greater affection for what we might term “learning for its own sake.” In America, though, learning has to be practical. The rest is “book learnin’,” and in this formulation we have drawn a fairly succinct frame around our culture’s deeply ingrained anti-intellectualism.
GED vs PhD
Which brings me back around to my title. AlterNet recently offered us a story with a supremely antagonistic title: “Is a GED More Valuable Than a PhD?” It examines the case of a young woman who earned her PhD and now can’t find any work in her field. She’s thinking of taking a job that requires only a GED.
This is an ugly time for the highly learned in America, especially if they’ve been foolish enough to pursue an education in useless disciplines like Philosophy, History and English. (It’s not quite as desperate in the hard sciences, although it’s bad there, too.) There are few jobs, insane competition for the ones that do exist, and if you do manage to land a gig I hope you weren’t counting on a living wage, spare time, professional respect or future security. And as bad as it is, it’s only going to get worse.
Even if your PhD is in an area with direct and useful application to the professional world, as mine is, you quickly learn that all those letters after your name aren’t necessarily doing you any good. In the business world, way too many people think that “PhD” is an abbreviation for the Latin term meaning “egghead with a lot of book learnin’ who doesn’t have enough common sense to come in out of the rain.” The perception, all too often, is that the PhD can’t find a job in the academy and is desperately trying to find an income in the “real world,” where he or she frankly doesn’t belong. In some cases this is certainly true, but even where docs may not be ideally suited to the biz world, they probably represent considerably more mental horsepower than most of the people in the organization, and mental horsepower ought to be cherished in an environment where your success often hinges on out-thinking the competition.
I’m sure I’m not the only doc in America who has left that last line out of the education section on the résumé. And even when I don’t delete the PhD, it’s not something I make a big deal about. If it does come up in an interview, I make sure to explain that I was never a pure academic type to start with – I was always a “real world” guy first and foremost, pursuing the doc for a series of personal reasons, but always knowing that I was bound for the business world.
Welcome to America, a land where your professional prospects are advanced by underplaying your educational accomplishments.
So, is a GED better than a PhD? It’s bad enough that we live in a place where the question can even be posed. What’s worse is realizing that it’s a rhetorical question.