On Beginnings: Part 21

This essay (serialized here across 24 separate posts) uses words and numbers to discuss the uses of words and numbers — particularly examining evaluations of university degrees that employ statistical data to substantiate competing claims. Statistical analyses are crudely introduced as the mode du jour of popular logic, but any ratiocinative technique could likely be inserted in this re-fillable space and applied to create and defend categories of meaning with or without quantitative support. Questions posed across the series include: Is the data informing or affirming what we believe? What are the implications of granting this approach broader authority? The author, Melanie Williams, graduated from UA in 2006, with a B.A. in Anthropology and Religious Studies.


I don’t know how to calculate the abstract value of degrees I don’t have, so I’ll talk about a few things I think I know, and wish I had known sooner rather than later.  I didn’t progress through college based on anything like cognitive ability, creative skills, or academic merit.  I got into and through college because I had parents who signed a promissory note to put me there.  If college is the filtering process that is portrayed in these many articles, it is not the “realization” of latent academic “potential.”  It is merely the line between those who can afford to pay and those who cannot afford to pay.  I graduated from UA’s College of Arts and Sciences with two of the bleakest majors these articles have rated, though I think their combined score vaults me into the range of, maybe, the college of Social Work.  I have used any means at my disposal to land all of the low-paying jobs I have had since graduation, to wit:  apply, persist, cajole, or (only twice so far!) lie.  Most of the time, if I discuss it at all, I tell people I earned a B.A. in the same blasé tone of voice I would use to tell them I once had a benign tumor, and I receive the same heartfelt tones of sympathy.  If you put stock in such things, you could easily put me into the category of the 25th percentile for whom college was not a good investment.  This has nothing to do with the “absolute” economic or social value of obtaining a degree; it’s a consequence of the decisions I have made along the way as I stumbled through my wayward life.   A more graceful, clever person, with or without a degree, may have maneuvered more successfully, however that may be defined.  Perhaps it’s the opportunity itself that’s priceless, and you can either make use of it or squander it.  But on any given day – clipboard in hand – how will you know the difference? 

I’m not sure why Arts and Sciences are such a favorite target of college-value-appraisals when folks could just as easily rag on the colleges of Business, Architecture, Medicine, Engineering, Education, Agriculture, Social Work, Communications, or Computer Sciences (according to Steve Jobs, a liberal art, anyway.)  How curious that, today, we think of different college departments as being distinct, even mutually exclusive:  “So STEM students, form a line behind the Schlenk tubes.  Humanities, gather up under the Twilight poster.”  As if they never mingle, or share, or challenge, or inspire each other.  Or as if their divisions were natural, rather than products of our imaginings in a specific set of circumstances that we term our histories.  As a theoretical physicist writing of an experimental physicist in 1916 attests:

“Concepts which have proved useful for ordering things assume easily so great an authority over us, that we forget their terrestrial origin and accept them as unalterable facts.  They then become labelled as “conceptual necessities,” “a priori givens,” etc.  The road of scientific progress is frequently blocked for long periods by such errors.  It is therefore not just an idle game to exercise our ability to analyse familiar concepts, and to demonstrate the conditions on which their justification and usefulness depend, and the way in which, in specific cases, they developed.”

Perhaps “it is therefore not just an idle game” to participate in any contest of words.  More like “a runs the gamut from glib to grave game.”  The benefits of a college education will likely always be debated, because it is not possible to quantify the unknown effects it will have upon your unlived future.  College graduates don’t emerge with categorically homogeneous sets of experiences and proficiencies; we probably shouldn’t enter college expecting it to be a straight path to a lucrative career.  How to appraise the value, then, of a college education, if it has no essential, self-evident worth revealed by the crowd-sourced data?  Are colleges a bovine drain on the middle class, or a bastion of publicly-funded civic morale?   Is it possible that the era in which it made sense for young folks to aspire to attend college – at any cost – are over?  Have universities simply devolved into, as Baudrillard claimed in 1981, sites “of a desperate initiation to the empty form of value?”  Good luck definitively answering that one.

I’ll dodge the question altogether, thanks, and let liberal arts grad Margaret Atwood speak to the benefits of a liberal arts degree:

“Then I thought that maybe I could say a few words on the subject of a liberal arts education, and how it prepares you for life. But sober reflection led me to the conclusion that this topic too was a washout; for, as you will soon discover, a liberal arts education doesn’t exactly prepare you for life. A preparation-for-life curriculum would not consist of courses on Victorian Thought and French Romanticism, but of things like How to Cope With Marital Breakdown, Getting More for your Footwear Dollar, Dealing With Stress, and How To Keep Your Fingernails from Breaking Off by Always Filing Them Towards the Center; in other words, it would read like the contents page of Homemakers Magazine, which is why Homemakers Magazine is so widely read, even by me.”

A college degree doesn’t guarantee success in the career you choose – you may not get the job you wanted, or get paid enough to justify the education expenses.  There is no way to determine what your income will be in the future, whether you get a degree or not – that will mostly depend upon whom you know, your string of jobs, no small amount of luck, and how you wield your “brass balls.”  But if we are using salary as a barometer of skill, intelligence, or the social value of someone’s labor, it’s hard to account for compensation along the lines of between $350 and $480 million for the CEO and chairman of a major investment bank in the eight-year climb to that bank’s $600 billion bankruptcy, while an early childhood educator will probably struggle to bring home $35,000 a year.  Someone more mathematically beefy than I am will have to tackle that mystery.

Part 22 coming today at noon…