On Education

I stumbled into university because I had a summer job with a group of guys from a higher social class than me. Their fathers were doctors and lawyers or had good permanent jobs and the families lived in areas like River Heights. When the grades came out, they said to me, “Your grades are as good as ours. Why don’t you come to university?”

University? What was that? My father was a fisherman and, in the off season, he had a barber shop.

One of the guys helped me register. I entered a world of professors, lectures, time tables, libraries, research. Entered is probably too strong a word. I tumbled, stumbled, fell, into a world run by the clock, not the seasons.

It never occurred to me that I was taking philosophy, political science, English, economics, French, so that I could get a job. There already were jobs. I could go commercial fishing. Or I could go to Red River College and take a trade. Be a carpenter like my grandfather. Or I could get a job on the railway like my other grandfather.

Working class to the core, that was us. Graduating from high school was an accomplishment. Many working class kids left after grade ten. Got jobs driving trucks, on construction, on the highway, in maintenance. The ones with parents already in the trades or who understood the importance of a ticket that would allow entrance into a union—plumbers, carpenters, electricians—got an apprenticeship.

I went to university because I wanted an education. I wanted to know, to understand, to think. I wanted to take courses in logic, the theory of the small business, the way Locke and Rousseau and Hobbes thought. I wanted to be able to speak and write and organize.

My education was a family thing. My parents were only able to help a little. My grandparents provided room and board. I had my summer job. It was enough.

I was lucky. Tuition was 300.00 a year. Books probably came to about 100.00. Bus fare was, if I remember correctly, 10 tickets for a dollar. My grandmother sent me off each day with a sandwich and a piece of fruit or a cut up vegetable.

Professors were poorly paid. So poorly paid that it was better financially to be a public school teacher. Then the government got involved. Someone once said there is nothing  more terrifying than a politician turning up at your door and saying, “I’ve come to help you.” It looked good, at first. Professors got paid better.

The government wasn’t interested in educating the public. They were interested in being able to demonstrate that they were doing something to help people get a job. Billboards appeared saying things like “Go to college and get a job.” To the government, university wasn’t about education, it was about being a trade school. It was about helping them get re-elected. Their logic, of course, was absurd.

When I graduated, if I got hired, it wasn’t going to be because I had skills like bookkeeping or driving a semi-trailer. I got hired because I’d shown that I could think, that I had an education that allowed me to read and understand, to paraphrase, to condense, to report, to explain, to organize and had an area of specialized knowledge. Yes, graduates did get jobs but it was, certainly in those days, partly because they were educated but also because the educated usually came from families in the middle class, upper middle class, even the upper class (and, yes, Canada has all those classes), families who had connections, who knew the right people, who had already trained their children in social niceties and behaviors. A degree was a ticket but to cash it in, daddy often picked up the telephone and called a friend.

No wonder that today there are articles about people being angry because the promise of go to university and get a job has been shown to be a fraud. Today, I read an article on a site called Mish’s Global Economic Trend Analysis that 37.5% of Graduates Work in Jobs Requiring No Degree. Graduates and their families are also angry about the cost of that education. I paid 300 dollars tuition for the year. Today, that doesn’t even pay for one half course. There are some colleges and universities where tuition is close to 50,000 dollars a year in the United States. I’d be angry, too, if I’d paid that much money a year in tuition plus other costs for three years and had been told that I was investing that money in a job that was going to pay mega bucks. Especially if when I graduated, I had mega debt and was working as a barista.

In Canada, we don’t have all the private universities that exist in the United States. That may be why that on average, undergraduate students in Ontario who paid the highest fees in Canada paid, on average, $7,180.00. However undergrads in dentistry paid $16,910.00. That’s a lot of moola. How long does it take to save $7,180.00, never mind $16,910.00. At least the dentists assume that they are going to make good money, after, of course, they pay off their debts, buy a practice or set up a practice with all its attendant expenses.

Of course, there are other fees the university collects. Then there’s room and board, travel, books, and who knows what else. A student can end up owing as much money as I paid for my first house.

Part of the problem is that education has always been about prestige. The social ranking of universities worldwide is brutal. Everybody knows where everybody else got their degree and there is a class structure that is unforgiving. Go ahead, just tell someone you graduated from some local college and that your degree is as good as one from Yale, Harvard, Oxford. You may be right. You may be as well educated. It won’t do any good. You’re living at the wrong address in the wrong neighbourhood. People will pay huge amounts of money for a prestigious address.

University administrators are smart people. They know on which side of their bread is buttered. The government has said go to university and get a job. The universities have put money into programs with saleable skills and then reinforced that with Co-operative Education programs. Even our Creative Writing program at the University of Victoria had a Co-op option. You want to be a poet, fine, but go out on work terms, become an editor, learn to write government reports, business reports, brochures, PR, whatever, so when you graduate, you won’t be working as a barista or selling bread in a bakery. Some went the Co-op route. Others chose not to. The ones who went the Co-op route were a help at budget time. We were able to say to the government overseers, see, we’re a trade school, too.

If people think that a university degree is like papers for an electrician or, if they think it should be, god help them. They should be getting an apprenticeship. Or they should be taking dentistry, medical, or pharmacy. There has been a shortage in those areas. Good thing. Those are degrees that are worthless unless there is a job on graduation. That’s the problem with highly focused training.

I often recommended to my students that they get both a university degree and their papers in a trade. As a democracy, we desperately need an educated populace and educated shouldn’t only apply to the middle and upper classes. We need to vote. We need to understand complex issues. We need to be able to see through lies and manipulation. We need to be educated. Being trained won’t help us manage our democracy.

If 37.5% of graduates are working in jobs that don’t require a degree so what? Most degree requirements for jobs are artificial. Over a lifetime, people nowadays change jobs many times. A while ago, I read about a surgeon who quit medicine to become a high school teacher.  High school teachers quit to become real estate agents. So what? I’m not sorry that people in jobs that don’t require a degree are educated.

If you or your kids are thinking of going to university because you think it is going to guarantee you or them a job that pays so much money that the cost, no matter how high it is, doesn’t matter, then give your head a shake. I know an engineer, top notch, has worked for the most prestigious government and private organizations. He’s been unemployed for over three years. India is churning out engineers. Tens of thousands of engineers. They work cheap. So much for the value of all those practical courses.

Personally, I think universities shouldn’t try to be trade schools. They should educate people. Most jobs require a very narrow set of skills that are endlessly repeated. Let employers do the training.


2 thoughts on “On Education

  1. I am not sure where I come down on job training at universities. It doesn’t seem practical, though internships in conjunction with study seem to be very productive, depending on one’s course of study. My concern is that we need to do job training somewhere in the high school years (13 to 18) years. I like the system they have in Germany and Denmark where youth unemployment is among the lowest in the OECD. We took most vocational education out of American high schools and emphasized that everybody ought to be trying to go to college. We have also canned most of the music, art and sports programs, except football, of course. These are the kinds of “fluff” that motivate a lot of kids to stay in school. We do not all want to be astronauts or software engineers, nor is there enough work for all of us if we wanted to be. The end result of all this is that we have record numbers of students dropping out of high school. Their prospects for entering the job market on living wages are not good. Therefore, I want to see us have some kind of job training programs for students who want to go to “work”.

    I do agree with you that it is a good idea for a person to have a skilled trade as well as an education. I did not have anything to fall back on when I did not make the cut for promotion in the Air Force. All I had was an education. I thought at the time that if I had learned an aircraft maintenance trade before I became an officer I would have had something to fall back on. I did go back to more school to become a teacher, so it all worked out in the end. But if I had been a jet engine mechanic, for example, I might have just gone to one of the airlines and not had to skimp economically for about five years to catch up with where I had been. I talked a little with both of my daughters about this to no avail. The just got university degrees, as well.

    As for the job situation out there, I agree. One daughter, with a BA in creative writing, is working as a cook and one daughter is finishing her BA in speech therapy. She needs an MA though to get a job, so she is applying to graduate school. My daughter with a BA in creative writing is applying to get an MFA and numerous universities as well. People seem to need ever higher levels of education to work in their fields now.

  2. Bill. you’ve been in the belly of the beast – I mean in a university teaching position for many years – and you’ve dispensed much wisdom in this (as usual) well crafted opinion piece. In my family, the younger half (exactly half) of the children went to university, the older half did not (though some took courses part time while working). My four older siblings were equally qualified but universities had not expanded and education had not been democratized before the sixties. When brother Dennis proved it was possible for a bright guy from a financially distressed family to attend university, that inspired me to give up my job as a school teacher and enroll in the University of Manitoba. A few savings, a dorm room, dates with transportation provided by Transit Tom, five months each summer to work (as a plasterer’s helper, in a warehouse, etc), sholarships/bursaries/fellowships and voila, a whole new view of the world and my place in it. Governments across Canada in the early sixties were making university easier for young people from families with ordinary means for the first time. They may have been doing this largely with a trade school, ‘get a job notion in mind, but once I got into university I found many profs and students still held to a liberal arts/’education for education’s sake’ philosophy. Manitoba Premier Duff Roblin, a Red Tory (who incongruously once wore white gloves to a university function I attended), had been a progressive education minister, and as Premier continued his drive for expanding post-secondary education. Even before the sixties, the Manitoba government and perhaps other provincial regimes, had the enlightened policy of allowing rural kids, largely strangers to brick and mortar libraries, to borrow books via the postal service – piles of books, from a central repository in Winnipeg. I devoured countless books as a result of this program, which helped me withstand the culture shock I received on entering university as a rural (read inadequately)-educated young man, from a one-room school, taught as often as not by teen-aged teachers unleashed on us with only a government ‘permit’ in their pockets, and no library to speak of, and half of high school navigated via correspondence courses. Given the odds stacked against folks like me, had not the public sector democratized education, we’d never have been able to take advantage of the learning we craved. Since those heady days, governments have increasingly imposed higher fees and other barriers to impoverished kids getting a fair break at a good post secondary education.

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