The Monopoly On Education


Will: See, the sad thing about a guy like you is, in 50 years you’re gonna start doin’ some thinkin’ on your own and you’re going to come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life: one, don’t do that, and two, you dropped 150 grand on a fuckin’ education you could have got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library! 

Clark: Yeah, but I will have a degree. And you’ll be servin’ my kids fries at a drive-thru on our way to a skiing trip.
Will: That may be, but at least I won’t be unoriginal. But I mean, if you have a problem with that, I mean, we could just step outside – we could figure it out.
Clark: No, man, there’s no problem. It’s cool. 

I love this scene in Goodwill Hunting because it sums up in large part how I feel about the current education system (only Matt Damon says it way cooler than I ever will).

Does it trouble anyone else that university presidents (in Canada at least, I can’t vouch for the USA) make more money than the Prime Minister does?  It is primarily tax dollars that pay both of their salaries (most universities in Canada operate with about 60-70% of their costs covered by the government).  How about the whole notion of publishing journal articles in a specific language that only certain people can speak effectively (APA, MLA, Chicago etc)?  If you do not want to lay eyes on a somewhat cynical rant about the tyranny of post-secondary education monopolies then please avert your eyes.

Cynical or Realistic?

In my masters course last week someone who was taking their first course in several years (after being in the workforce for a substantial period of time) asked me why so much emphasis was placed on getting the exact period and comma marks right when citing sources (she was not questioning the validity of citing a source, only the extremely specific emphasis put on the minutiae of it).  My response shocked her a little.

I responded without pausing to phrase my answer in politically correct terms that, “Education is a pyramid scheme and the whole idea is to make sure those at the top get fed.  Other than that, nothing else really matters.”  Her surprised face and speechless response quickly informed me that I had just said something that radically challenged her worldview.  “I’m sorry,” I immediately responded, not wishing to be harsh, “it’s just that I thought you knew being a teacher and all.”

“REALLY! You really think that is why we do all of this?” she asked still somewhat in shock.  You see this well-meaning, relatively well-educated lady had soaked up so much of the higher education propaganda I may as well have been proposing an overthrow of democracy itself.  Universities have plainly done a great job portraying themselves as the only way to “get ahead” in life, and pushed the idea that achieving success at one will bestow a high level of prestige on an individual.

It’s a Self-Perpetuating Business Model

I was unsure of how far to proceed at this point seeing as how I didn’t really need to shatter anyone’s rose coloured glasses at the time, but I responded, “Ok, think about it this way, why do our professors go completely berserk when someone mentions Wikipedia?  Why do our professors spend 40 minutes explaining why any form of plagiarism is the worst crime imaginable, while only spending on 30 seconds on the topic of how this course will pertain to helping the world at all?  Why are we forcefully recommended to buy the newest editions of textbooks that held 3 pages of different information than the last edition?  Why do we have dozens of high-ranking university bureaucrats that collect upwards of $200,000 a year, while undergrads are treated like herds of cattle whose purpose is to have their student loans milked from them?”  I had to stop when her eyes started glazing over (as yours likely just did).

You see professors hate Wikipedia NOT for the reason that they commonly give – anyone can write anything on there – but because it takes away one of the primary sources of their income.  While it is true that anyone can post on Wikipedia, it is usually reviewed pretty frequently, and readers can always use a little critical thinking ability and scan the sources at the bottom to make sure it is a reputable article.  Academic journal articles profess to be special because they are “peer-reviewed.”  Wikipedia is the very definition of “peer-reviewed!”  The fact is that professors have to point their students towards academic journals because otherwise no one else would read them and therefore the academic pyramid would topple inwards.

What Is a Post-Secondary Education Really About?

University used to be looked at as a place to get smarter.  The Utopian image of knowledgeable minds getting together to learn from one another, as well as from those that came before them.  Now they are merely a costly game that some people are forced to play because society needs a simple way of determining who will get specific jobs.  I cannot speak for people with math and science backgrounds, and I believe they probably find their education a lot more useful than B. Arts punks like me.  I know that the vast majority of jobs that one gets with a B.A. hold absolutely no relevance to the degree you have.  Universities often counter this argument by saying, “A university education should be about improving yourself, and expanding your horizons, not merely preparing you for a specific job.”  The only problem with that statement is that you can get the same experience by going to the library and forming a book club (like my boy Will Hunting).  For the vast majority of undergrads they would be just as well off learning to think critically and studying on their own as they would be attending a university, if their sole goal was to expand one’s horizons in a general manner.

It Isn’t All Bad

The fact is that university is a useful social construct for a few reasons.  It does provide an interesting atmosphere to exchange ideas in.  It serves its chief purpose, which is to provide a mechanism to filter out the number of applicants for certain jobs (teaching being the most obvious example).  It has many different kinds of tertiary benefits such as meeting an extremely wide range of people and offering opportunities to engage in new interests.  It DOES NOT however prepare you for a job in most cases (obviously professional faculties are excluded from that statement) or guarantee you will be a whole lot smarter than when you started.

Think About Who Ultimately Benefits Most

If you were ever an undergrad you know that many profs find the whole idea of lecturing to “low-lives” like undergrads to be beneath them.  Universities see undergrads as the source of funding that allows the rest of the university to operate.  They are the bottom of the pyramid.  At the top we have people making double what the Prime Minister does for running a business (for that is what a university is) that serves a few thousand people (in comparison to an entire country).  For me, once I realized university was just a game that you can excel at once you figure out the weird rules, I did quite well.  I always laugh when people think I must be smart because I did well at university.  There are so many examples that prove this premise wrong it’s not worth going into detail over.  Suffice to say, I believe that higher education exists to benefit those who have learned how to play the game the best.  They are the Bernie Madoffs of the education world.  Everyone else underneath them is there to make their life possible.

Do You Really Need That Special Piece of Paper?

Unless you have a career in mind that requires a university degree, my advice would be just to hang out at university for free.  Most profs don’t care at all if you wonder into their classes (most will not even realize there is someone new there).  Get involved with groups, read books, meet new people, and best of all, do it for free.  Expand your horizons without paying thousands to do it.  Universities are not the only way to get smarter; in fact, they’re not even a very good/efficient way to get smart at all.  If you need to get a degree don’t stress about it, instead just learn the tricks to the game and realize what it is: a legalized, subsidized, pyramid scheme.

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12 years ago

Great piece. That’s what Steve Jobs did for a while right? Just audit classes that he liked. I got a BS and learned some useful basic concepts that I still use at work. I agree with you about the BA though, it’s just too expensive to come out with no marketable skill.

12 years ago

I think it is an interesting premise of just going to university and not enrolling and take classes. I would definitely do that when I retire. Wow! Education for education sake versus a degree! The value goes up tremendously when you are not paying for it. Most of my careers required a degree, except for the ones that made me a lot of money.

12 years ago

Big Uni presidents make $500-800,000/yr here in the US vs. $400,000 for the President of USA, so yes, it’s the same!

Education has an inelastic demand curve. Parents fear their kids will be losers and will pay for anything. Take no chances!

12 years ago

I like this article. The need for a college degree is becoming a hot issue in the 101Centavos household. #1 Son is bored stiff in school, dreaming as he is about his robots. And yet, without that degree as a door-opener, he might find his early career a bit of a hard go. Later in life, life experiences could count as much or more than that degree, but early on, it’s up for debate….

12 years ago

No kidding, I mean…Look at Gates, he dropped out of HARVARD! He did it to build up the microsoft empire, and later came back to finish but still, that takes balls.

Excellent post!!! I wish more young people would read this before deciding to attend university. I’ve always wondered if you could learn 100x more by starting and running your business, than going to university to get an MBA.

12 years ago

Some university presidents even make 7 figures… so yes, it’s the same if not worse. It’s not always a pyramid scheme, but often it turns out to be that. It’s also very competitive and the only way to survive as an academic is to critique others.

Mr. Harvey
12 years ago

There is a columnist from the U.K that I follow. He publishes for The Guardian it is a pretty good read most of the time. He recently wrote a piece on the same theme but was critical of the academic journals. I don’t agree completely agree with the Wikipedia model. It is fine for common knowledge but when it comes to more specialized topics, one needs to know who is writing, and reviewing it, along with their credentials. The article above talks about the enormous profits these publishers make at the expense of the universities (and the people that… Read more »

Reply to  Teacher Man

I am right with you. In fact I use a lot more of the knowledge that I have learned outside of school at my job and in my life. School was just a formality really.

emma@online masters degree
12 years ago

Great post!!! I wish more young people would read this before deciding to attend university.In the area of wikipidia model It is fine for common knowledge but when it comes to more specialized topics, one needs to know who is writing, and reviewing it, along with their credentials. Thanks and keep it up.

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