When did it become pejoratively elitist to be “smart” as in the sense of educated? I started out to write this post earlier but got diverted into side issues. First, it is necessary to point out how much our public conversation and even some private relationships are dominated by fantasies about high-culture universities, people having paperwork about certifications, and how mention of the military has shifted from “grunt” G.I.’s to generals assumed able to run the world. The actual content of the work is mysterious. Rocket science. Brain surgery.
It’s partly the fault of the media, who are notably well-educated or wise NOT, but who in their zeal to prove the importance of the people they describe or interview find it convenient to use those acronym tags without quite knowing what they mean. They don’t the difference between an MA and a MS, they don’t know which acronyms have specialized meanings for church people, and they don’t know that whatever the alphabet tagged onto a name has little meaning unless the interpreter knows which institution, which school of thought, which outstanding teacher, was actualizing what is only a loose consensus of what the achievement means.
So a fancy name like Cambridge Analytica can get respect for what is basically a double-talking bean counter. A traditional title like The Reverend Ms. Golden Jones is NOT putting on airs, but the usual honorific for a religious leaders BUT in terms of their own institutional realm. No differently than the privileged small-town kid whose daddy is on the school board, college degrees are inflated by such phenomena as Gentleman’s B, which can mean that the kid is stupid but his daddy bought the school a new building. They can be “legacies,” meaning that their ancestor attended here and if we don’t admit this junior version, it casts aspersions on what we did for his dad and grandpap because what counts is family. (An old European idea about class.)
Local kids who think a lot -- or even learn how to play chess -- are called “nerds” and “four-eyes” and put down as being clumsy in ordinary social life. Eggheads who try to do rocket science and all that. They are ghettoized the same as artists, because the mainstream is team sports and those who aspire to being sex symbols AKA cheerleaders.
The payback comes when it is time to hire. At one time all the kids who acted up or just couldn’t “get it,” simply left. Even if they were required to stay until they were sixteen, they didn’t. But graduation from high school meant something, basic as it was. Then there was concern for late bloomers or kids whose fault was none of their own, so the GED was invented. But there was still considerable angst over the kid who turned up in his/her twenties unable to read, write or figure except in some barely-getting-by way. It was supposed to be an "evener" but became a liability in some circumstances.
In those days there weren’t so many neighborhood junior colleges or specialized technical schools but they worked. Then they began to load up on humanities subjects and then the costs began to go up. In 1961 when I came to Montana, any kid who graduated from high school could go to state college, no cost except keeping yourself fed. The really outstanding leaders in the Blackfeet world — Darrell Kipp and Eloise Cobell for instance — come from this time.
In addition there were colleges who prided themselves in a social action way on admitting Third World people. Harvard was among them and Dartmouth which was supposed to be for Indians anyway. A few, like Goddard, were a bit puzzling. The "Left" in those days emphasized the right to find your own way — but what way was that?
Pretty soon every BA and BS was about equivalent and took on the role of the high school diploma. Then the MA and MS became something similar. In fact, my U of Chicago Div School degree meant only that the school certified I could handle advanced thought and that I could read French. It was meant to be almost internal but was included in what purported to justify a D.Min as superior to the normal degree which was an MDiv. As it turned out, very few managed to complete the necessary thesis, which wasn’t surprising since the three or four member faculty just didn’t know enough — could NOT know enough. Today the school gives an MDiv again, which is very much like social work degree, since the ministry is seen as a kind of social work.
Now that kindergarten kids pretend to “graduate” by wearing imitation scholar’s robes from medieval times, it is impossible to attend the major formal processions of big-time universities without looking on the earnest robe-wearing professors as kindergarden kids. The basic BS population (pun intended) only attends their graduation if their parents make them.
It is much clearer now that any degree is more likely to be permission to be hired than entry to actual jobs. Plenty of schools of all kinds prepare students to enter a field without ever examining whether there are enough jobs for them. This is as true for elite math and science as it is for vocational basics. A Ph.D. means nothing now unless it can be demonstrated that one has successfully and meaningfully done graduate work via publications.
At the same time there is so much ferment in the nature of what is done, the assumptions under which it is done, and the redrawing of discipline boundaries, so that what is significant today may be irrelevant tomorrow. It may turn out that it’s the little sprout of a nebbish in the corner who becomes the cornerstone of a whole new understanding. And the bitter payoff is that no one really cares very much because this much focus and definition is a product of population density. Outside a megacity and a multi-versity, people are busy surviving.
The cost has gone sky-high. One university’s tuition is enough to once have paid for four years of classes. The upshot of that is that institutions grant waivers and subsidies that tie the individual to that institution and forces them to defend its value. Also, the grad is sent out into the world carrying a massive debt that they may have to pay the rest of their life. That’ll keep ‘em in line.
It is these practical and monetary uses of degree granting institutions that keeps institutions alive and defending their reputations. The paper, suitable for framing, is taken to be equivalent to the actual achievement of earning it. Students are used to this since the pile of certificates and diplomas in their sock drawers can be useful.
To summarize, true knowledge and scholarship have been denigrated by trivializing and automating what once was a mark of achievement and by inflating the money, promising great rewards in the unknown future for those who will “buy” education now. It IS stupid to spend years of young life increasing major debt for jobs that might not exist a few years from now. The paper proof will be the payment book.