Savvy Advice From My Cousin Vinny about an Education Worth Having

When I was 18, I thought I’d be an aeronautical engineer in the Air Force.  I went to an engineering school and majored in mechanical engineering, but I also did a big project on the military-industrial complex and minored in U.S. history.  Turns out that I did do engineering in the Air Force, specifically software testing and project management, but I soon moved into history and got an MA and D.Phil. focusing on science and technology.  Meanwhile, forty years later I still find myself writing about the military-industrial complex.  My “broader” education helped me to move away from engineering into fields that over time interested me more.

College is (or should be) about a lot more than earning a specialized degree and then cashing in.  In retrospect, half of my college experience was about living on my own and with roommates, growing up, and making friends.  Maturing.

You rarely know what your career arc will be.  What you want at 18 years of age may not be what you want at 22 or 32.  A broader education can give you the tools to branch out and pursue exciting opportunities as they come along.  All these things were on my mind as I read the following stimulating article by my longtime friend, M. Davout.  W.J. Astore

Even in The Matrix, there’s more to life than code.

An Education Worth Having

M. Davout

My son, who aspires to be a successful software developer and entrepreneur, applied to colleges this year and is finally getting word back from the universities to which he applied. The school he preferred, a prestigious state institution focused on technical fields, rejected him and the disappointment (particularly, and perhaps even more, for his parents) was great. As other rejections came in from universities that were, in retrospect, obvious longshots for my son, I felt the need to reach out to an older cousin who recently retired after a long and successful career working in technical support, sales, and then in upper management in a globally-dominant company that sells both computer hardware and software.   

As a native-born kid in the suburbs, I always looked on my cousin with admiration for how, coming to the country at the age of ten without any English, he was able to navigate the tough immigrant neighborhood of Boston’s North End and managed, through determination and hard work, to get an education at a local technical college and, afterwards, a well-paying job at a computer hardware company. Over his long employment there, he rose in the corporate ranks, while continuing to advance his technical education during nights and weekends. But there was also, I should admit, some condescension—as a native-born speaker benefitting from the well-funded public schools of the suburbs, I was able eventually to get into an elite liberal arts university whose education I considered superior to the narrow technical one that my cousin presumably had.     

When I reached out to my cousin for advice about my son I expected full-throated support for a path that was practical, realistic, and single-mindedly attentive to what the marketplace promised in the way of lucrative careers. In other words, as a smug liberal arts professor, I expected my cousin to conform to my preconceptions about the values and character of business people. What I got (as demonstrated in my cousin’s replies pasted in below) was something different, a demonstration that the values of broadmindedness can flourish in many different places including the business world and that a liberal arts college professor can be as narrow-minded as they come.    

I conveyed to my cousin that my son loved to code, was very focused on privacy software development as a career, and had ambitions to make a lot of money, to which he answered: “Yes, youth always thinks that way. As you know he needs a base education so that he can do that. Focusing on security software is fine, but he needs general computer understanding, hardware and software, along with marketing and business.”

I mentioned that over the last year, my son had more than once questioned why he has to spend four years in college if he already knows what he wants to do and has developed coding skills. My cousin responded: “He thinks he might have, but I assure you he has not. If he has the skills, school should help bring them further out.”

Ordinarily, I would insist on my son going to college. However, a software development friend had mentioned that his nephew successfully attended a software coding academy, which teaches coding skills over a two to three month intensive (9-5 each weekday) schedule. Tuition is $12-14K but the graduates leave with excellent prospects to start in the field at $70+K. I thought this might be something for my son. My cousin, the computer business guy, expressed skepticism: “Which academies in particular do you have in mind? As you know he should have a rounded education, especially in computers, there are many facets, focusing on just one thing might get boring, and it limits his personality.”

When I mentioned that my software friend had said that one can make a good salary without a college degree (though management jobs did usually require a BS or BA) and that half of the developers working at his companies don’t have college degrees, my cousin responded: “Yes, but the game is long term, Tino might think this is what he wants now, but only with a broader experience can he then be sure. At the end of the day, he should have the biggest say, if he is excited about coding academy, maybe he should try it. But remind him that being rounded is better than just one super skill. He might like coding now, but who knows in the future.”

In his long and successful career in business, my cousin had acquired a respect for broader education that was based, unlike my own, on the experience of working with diverse people in complex and evolving organizations, operating in-country and overseas, responding to the varying demands of customers and bosses, staying abreast of technological developments and political changes, all the while pursuing lifelong learning. I realize now that I sold him short and am grateful for his teaching me how I can better convey to my son that a broader education will serve him well not only in business but in life.

Yes, Education is about Social Control

Don't ask questions. Don't seek answers. Enjoy the spectacle. (Image: Wiki)
Don’t ask questions. Don’t seek answers. Enjoy the spectacle. (Image: Wiki)

W.J. Astore

Education in my sense of liberating and strengthening (making articulate and uncompromising) the intellect is of course antithetical to much of what is going on in our schools and universities, which I would rather refer to by such terms as training, molding, socialization, mystification, memorizing of facts, obfuscation of meaning–all processes designed to produce intelligent citizens who are ready to execute jobs faithfully and not ask any questions about their meaning or purpose or value to fellow human beings.

(Christian Bay, Strategies of Political Emancipation, 1981)

Corporate society takes care of everything.  And all it asks of anyone, all it’s ever asked of anyone ever, is not to interfere with management decisions. 

Mr. Bartholomew (played by John Houseman) in Rollerball, 1975

As a professor and lifelong learner, I see education as equal parts empowering and enlightening.  Knowledge is power, as Francis Bacon said, and the lamp of learning helps to illuminate our lives.

But is education also about social control?  Sadly, the answer is “yes.”  Education that is simplified and standardized is often little more than indoctrination.  Education that is too regimented, too centralized, too much like a factory, prepares students for a life of unquestioning obedience and unreflective conformity.

Authorities have often been keen to restrict or outlaw forms of knowledge that they see as undermining their privileges and power.  Writing from Australia, Dr Teri Merlyn reminded me that:

There have been very direct, coordinated battles [against knowledge and reformers] – witness the censorship battles over Tom Paine’s ‘The Rights of Man’, when you could go to gaol for simply owning a copy, and the 19th Century ‘Church and King’ mobs sent to punish radical writers and publishers by burning down their houses … There are powerful social forces at work that have their self-interest at heart and see what they do in that context.  Witness the great educator of the working class, Hannah Moore, writing to her Bishop at the turn of the 18th Century, assuring him whilst she was teaching these working class girls to read, sufficient for their service duties, they would never learn to write, for that would encourage them to aspire beyond their station.

Education today still largely teaches students to stay within their station.  Today’s focus on vocational education is both salutary and one-dimensional.  Students are told to get degrees as passports to a job.  They’re not told to aspire to be skeptical citizens who dare to question (or even to supplant) authority.

And there’s the rub.  We face difficult, seemingly intractable, problems in the world today.  Global warming.  Fossil fuel dependence.  A widening gap between rich and poor.  A military-industrial-intelligence complex that dominates our foreign policy as well as much of our domestic policy.  Worrisome budget deficits.  Unaffordable health care.  The list goes on.

But our students are not being educated to address these challenges, at least not in any radical way, in the sense of getting to the roots of the problem.

Education, in essence, has largely become training, just another form of careerism.  And the high student debt that many students incur in obtaining their “passport to success” ensures they are essentially indentured servants, forced to keep working to pay off their debt (and often to keep their health care benefits as well).

Even as students incur debt in the process of training for a career, higher education brags most loudly about its close ties to business and industry.  Yet business and industry, as Teri Merlyn notes, “has effectively [outsourced] its responsibility to train its workforce, diverting that cost onto the public purse.  In order to do that, it has infested educational language with its own terminology.  The dominance of the Business Paradigm is now absolute.”

Just as college football is a feeder to the NFL, higher education is increasingly a feeder to business and industry.  It’s a Rollerball world dominated by violent sports and corporate conglomerates.

Education, in short, has lost any sense of higher purpose.  “Adapt to the world as you find it” is both the implicit and explicit message. And whatever you do, don’t rock the boat.

Part of the method is to destroy any sense of class identity among students.  Today, virtually all my students self-identify as being members of the “middle class,” even though many are working class (just as I am a son of factory workers).  In American society, we’ve lumped blue-collar with white-collar jobs, so that now janitors and fast-food workers (for example) think of themselves as middle class.

This is not to denigrate janitors or fast-food workers.  Rather, it’s to highlight the calculated decline of class identity and solidarity in the U.S.  If we’re all middle class, if we’re all bourgeois, why bother uniting in unions to fight for our rights?  If we allegedly inhabit a post-class society of social mobility, education can then ignore ethical and societal questions of fairness to focus on workforce training and professional development.

As my Aussie correspondent, Dr Teri Merlyn, astutely noticed:

“That phenomenon of working class identity is a most unwilling one, so the strategy to co-opt the working class as nominal members of the owning class through the share and property markets was very successful.  One might even suspect this recent ‘economic crisis’ [of 2008] as the ‘owners’ simply taking back what they see as rightfully theirs.”

Put differently, you can’t see you’re being screwed as a worker when you view yourself as an “owner” in your own right.  And when you’re educated to conform, to produce the standard answer, to aspire to a respectable job (with your identity confined to that job), your consciousness will never be raised to challenge the system in any radical way.

In fact, your goal is to become the system, to reap its rewards for yourself, just as those that you now work for have done and are doing.

As we witness uprisings around the world, from Egypt to Greece to Brazil and elsewhere, we should ponder why there are not similar uprisings in the U.S.  Is it because the U.S. really is, pardoning Voltaire, the best of all possible worlds?  Or is it because our educational system immunizes us against any form of “socialism” (a curse word in American politics) or class consciousness?

Education, when it’s about getting the right answer that leads to the right job without ever questioning prevailing authority, becomes a status quo operation in social control.

To recognize that is not to surrender to it.  Rather, it’s to begin to fight it.