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A College “Education” Has Little To Do With Education


Authored by Ryan McMaken via The Mises Institute,

An old friend of mine, who taught political science for 25 years at the University of Colorado, was known to tell his students that the real reason they were there was to marry people from the right social class.

While perhaps a little overly cynical, this assessment certainly wasn’t totally wrong. Few parents have ever been overly concerned with the supposed education their children receive at a University like CU. The real concern has primarily been the receipt of a degree from a respectable – although not “elite” in the case of CU – university. And, whether they are consciously aware of it or not, an additional benefit has been to ensure that little Susie and little Johnny also become accustomed to the social mores and habits of a certain socio-economic class.

Even if Susie doesn’t meet a doctor at college, it’s still best to send Susie to a place where she learns to socialize and interact with the sorts of people who will eventually become doctors and engineers and successful business people. When one is finished with his or her “education,” one has a nice degree to show for it, plus a social circle comprised of  presumably soon-to-be-successful people.

So, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that it turns out rich Hollywood actors with intellectually and academically mediocre children have become obsessed with getting their children into high-status colleges. They employ bribes and fake test scores to purchase what they’ve always been able to purchase otherwise: a stylish consumer product, which is essentially all a college degree is for most people.

In a certain way, one has to admire these corrupt, cheating parents because they are too savvy to buy the nonsense that the higher education industry has been peddling for decades.

As ridiculous as it sounds, there are still people in higher education who spout quaint theories about “liberal education” and how college is a time for self-reflection and becoming “immersed in the great books of the Western Tradition,” and so on.

There is surely a tiny minority of college students who actually believe this — many of whom grow up to become professional students and college faculty — but college has long been largely about certification.

While universities were founded in the Christendom of the middle ages with some lofty goals, the vast majority of families who sent their young people to universities didn’t share these goals. They sent their children to universities to attain degrees in subjects like canon law which afforded to the family greater social status and perhaps a coveted job in church or secular government.

Yes, actually teaching certain skills has been important some of the time. Many of today’s oldest and most venerated universities, for example, were founded to train clergymen. Harvard University, after all, was created to deal with the problem of “an illiterate ministry,” was was thought to be all too common in colonial America. But by the nineteenth century, American universities had been converted to a broader model of education in which specific skills became less important, and the attainment of a degree became more important.

Over time, training in other professions, such as secular legal studies, became important goals for colleges and universities, largely because the middle classes saw this sort of training as a ticket to prosperity.  Rarely was a college education sold to the middle classes as an exercise in intellectual self improvement or gaining an appreciation of Virgil and Dante. But even then, the educational aspects of a college “education” weren’t the most important part of the experience. Training could often be attained on-the-job in law as in other professions. The college degree, on the other hand, was valuable because it communicated a certain elite status.

And this is what the middle classes really wanted most. After all, it’s hard to imagine an 1830s middle-class family patriarch, slaving away at the family shipping business, and scraping together tuition money for junior just so he can go have deep thoughts about the implications of the Peloponnesian War.

On the other hand, there’s no doubt that the upper classes could afford more navel-gazing. Indeed, by the mid nineteenth century, American universities had adopted the ideas of the upper classes from England decades before: that universities are there to prepare members of the elite for “leadership” and “service” by making them broad-minded intellectuals.

That, however, was never more than a boutique sort of education for the sons of the already-established elites.

But if that vision of higher education ever reflected reality, it certainly doesn’t now. The idea that students go to college to attain a broad and liberal view of humanity and human history appears almost laughable today. Outside of the college programs that provide real professionally-relevant job skills, such as in engineering and computer science, a college education offers little more than daily recapitulation in learning the ideological views of today’s intellectual class. Outside a narrow worldview shared by a tiny elite of humanities and social science professors, very little is taught at all.

Wealthy Hollywood types, being relentless and cynical social climbers, likely figured this out years ago. So they’ve now zeroed in on getting out of college all that college has to offer to someone who doesn’t have the intellectual chops to major in electrical engineering: a piece of paper that helps sustain membership in elite social circles.

via zerohedge


  1. What a collection of asinine thoughts about a college education. This diatribe couldn’t be further from the truth. My degree is a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, my husband’s degrees are a Bachelor of Religious Education and a Master’s in Elementary Education and a Master’s in Mathematics Education. Our daughters both have college degrees – the older daughter has a Bachelor’s in Advertising and a Master’s in Computer Science. The younger daughter has a Bachelor’s in Library Science and a Master’s in Computer Science and a Master’s in Poetry. None of us are part of the “elite” – we are middle class. We didn’t strive to find marriage partners – rather we wanted an education in order to obtain good paying jobs. The above writer has no idea of what a real college education is nor how to obtain one. He obviously has interviewed the wrong people, or he more likely has a purely cynical view of a college education to start with.

    • I believe the article was referring to the format for colleges today. I agree that a college degree does not mean anything these days. It is all about indoctrinating our young folks into the PC liberal BS. I also have a master’s degree in Law and to be quite honest..the caliber of students graduating from elite schools are so ignorant they cannot fathom every day life without a safe room. I am sure that your grown educated children were allowed to think for themselves…as most did in the past. Today..it’s all about the social class of folks..not the academic quality. We are very fortunate that our children were educated before our Universities became political targets, my sons as well have college educations and they most certainly worked hard for it and do not take it for granted. Our young people are learning intolerance from their schools of today. Soon, folks will quit sending their kids to college because they aren’t allowed the same benefits as the Hollyweird elites who waltz in on mommy or daddy’s bribery. This will destroy our colleges…and the degrees they provide. Soon, other Countries will elect to send their kids to other Universities other than those in the United States and then we will lose the immigrant students as well. This is unacceptable. College is meant to prepare students for the world once they graduate…not to turn them into PC monkeys.

      • I believe that you are right evidenced by the lack of ability to form rational thought in so many of the young people leaving the colleges and universities today.

      • Well said Debi. Around 1965 things changed in American “higher” education. I returned to my undergraduate campus to do graduate work. There I discovered out-of-state Brooklyn accent students carrying bullhorns encouraging students to do sit-ins at the administration offices. Their objective was to stir up conflict. It was also essentially the time of the beginning of illegal drug abuse among college students.
        Disruption of the academic stable atmosphere was the goal. The disruptive crowd back then was the forerunner of the “progressive” movement today.

    • So ,Nancy, you think it’s all about you? I have known college grads that couldn’t figure out a bus schedule and had a hard time making change.

    • Yours is a degree that does offer something. Majorit of colleges are turning out educated idiots. I spoke to a woman with her BA she believed the university system createdd in the last century. Never heard the real trutj of the 1960’s and Vietnam and the spiritual rvival that stopped the haters from Berjeley and other Marxists from taking over. It’s recurring again now that Marxist and Muslim haters of America, funded by rich leftists are in Congress. As a Christian I had to leave the mental health and drug addiction fields because they are teaching eastern religious methods

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  3. The University of Washington is directly responsible for educating the people who made Amazon, Starbucks, Boeing, Microsoft happen, and not to mention the doctors and staff at the UW Medical school consistently ranked in the top 10 of the country, and the doctors and staff of Fred Hutchinson Cancer center. I’ll confess I got my B.A., M.A., and Ph.D at UW, but I don’t remember ever meeting the kind of people this article is talking about at any of those levels. Everyone I met was very serious about their education.

  4. As an undergraduate woman in the 60’s, we worked very hard to be taken seriously. Yes, my degree was in liberal arts subject. Still use it to this day as I work in my second degree’s profession. When my daughter went to college in 2000, I was appalled. Her first 2 roommates were husband hunters. My generation fought so hard to not be tarred with that brush.

    My degrees were from the CA state system. The second degree had a better reputation than Stanford or Berkley. Better education, not too expense.

  5. You definitely don’t need a college degree to be successful. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of college at Harvard, and went on to create billion dollar businesses. Kylie Jenner took the $250k that her mother was going to use to pay for her college education, and instead, Kylie created her own business, and has now become the youngest billionaire. I respect those who take their talents and skills, and create businesses without the college education. You don’t really need it. I have a college degree, 2 masters degrees, and a doctorate. I’m not a billionaire. What have I learned from college? I have learned that you don’t need a college degree to be successful. Especially nowadays. Most colleges have become too elitist and teach very little. I would like to see that changed.

  6. Better go back in Grammar 101- article is full of grammatical and spelling errors. Maybe the author proves the point he is trying to make.

  7. The only ‘educations’ available now are at the military academies. A graduate must understand what the U.S. stands for and how to preserve, protect and honor the Constitution.

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