On the last day of April, I took a couple of college kids to dinner. They were the two interns that had brightened our spring on the farm and we spent two and a half hours talking. Mostly about what they were learning, what theyd do after graduation, how to pass final exams and whether theres a better way than college to enter adult life.
In typical kid fashion, they were going through time without worrying much about the future. Seriously, said my philosophy major, well call him David, should we be worried about graduating into this economy?
Well, yes, I had to say, but no more so than other times. When I graduated back in 1970, for example, there were no jobs for women in rural Illinois where I wanted to live. I ended up in a state social work position, obtained through my dads connections. I learned what conditions were like for people with no options, no skills. I also learned, after months of visiting foster homes, that society cant always solve the problems of alcohol and drug abuse by moving kids away from the sources. It was an education, but I couldnt have benefited if I hadnt been a college graduate.
Academics are buzzing about the failures of college. Student debt has passed the trillion dollar mark. Newspapers carry as many stories about kids defaulting as stories about CEOs making obscene wages. The book, Academically Adrift, points out that kids graduate without being able to demonstrate critical thinking or writing skills and that they forget what theyve studied as soon as the blue books are turned in.
Authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa say students spend 40 hours a week socializing and 13 hours a week studying. So why do we pay the exorbitant tuitions? Well, one reason is that college grads still make $20,000 a year more than high school grads. But there are deeper reasons, more important to society. When my students and I talked about what theyve gotten from college, I was surprised at their clear-headed thinking. They know, for example, that theyre not going to remember most of the crammed into their heads, even though thats how theyll pass their finals and thats how academics like Arum and Roksa identify success. Unlike their profs, students know that the main things they gained is time to think and focus on themselves and their relationships. Nowadays, that means friends from all over the world.
Still, despite the distractions, the profs can be proud. Amanda, the Environmental Studies major, amazed me at how deeply shes taken in the ability to observe the land and explain whats going on, what farmers are doing well and what were not. As we pulled a new weed thats appeared in one of our vegetable beds, she spoke book and theory about how nature adapts.
On the first day of our internship, I took the kids on a drive and we talked about what farmers were doing mostly tearing up trees from pastures so they can plant corn for short-term gains. Amanda was always a step ahead of my windshield lecture. David was less in tune with the land but did an amazing job at connecting with the reality of how the human future is affected when we abandon kindness toward earth and focus completely on money and politics.
I will be returning to his paper on genetic engineering again and again to remember how a college junior sees things. Our graduating senior, Amanda, is getting out with just over $20,000 in debt, the price of a new car. Thats an amazing achievement for a rural kid that started with nothing, accrued a bunch of scholarships and worked her tail off. Shes a sharp and thrifty kid that can start at the bottom, make her minimum payments and scramble her way up and make extra payments as she impresses her bosses with hard work.
If we are serious about re-building the middle class with intelligent voters, able entrepreneurs and creative thinkers, we need educated young adults. They can avoid the heavy indebtedness in many ways. Parents and grandparents can start savings accounts for them, and states have ways to make that attractive. Students can take a year or two off, the gap years that are common in European countries, to work and save money, starting college with some life experience under their belts.
There are problems, no doubt, in education, and a lot of kids would do better in trade school or simply working a few years. We should encourage them to follow the path that makes the most sense for them rather than insisting that they march lockstep from high school into college. At the same time, this generation has a struggle ahead, and abandoning the idea of college educations is a bad idea for the futures of us all.
Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. She blogs at progressivepopulist.blogspot.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2012
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