By: Aryeh Schonbrun | Opinions  | 

Why School Sucks: How the Commercialization of Higher Education Spoiled the Fun and Robbed Me of My Curiosity

As I begin yet another year of university studies, and commit myself to yet another barrage of challenging courses, tests, and study regimens, I have begun to bear the brunt of the difficult and unforgiving school-year, the irresponsive notice of my peers and lecturers, and the dull tedium of long days, tiresome nights, and interminable worries that typically characterize a normal educational experience. Though I experienced similar circumstances in high school, I was younger then. The juvenile willingness to pull all-nighters has given way to a mature sense of sleep-entitlement, and, if I could roll with the punches as a child, I now intend to stand up for what I see as an injustice.

What has bothered me for years, and has made my life and studies difficult in turn, I can only describe as a deeper appreciation for the ideals of education and study. I did not happen upon these realizations by chance, nor have I been blessed mightily by having seen the light. In fact, what I have discovered about our corrupt educational system I gained from first-hand experiences and personal frustration over a failing system.

Sociologically, and thus psychologically, the current system of corrected meritocracy, of emphasis on a strict puritanical work-ethic and a misgiving for the virtues of leisure and down-time, has struck a blow on the weakest and strongest alike. The weak suffer, overwhelmed by the immensity of an extraordinarily complex universe, and the strong suffer from extremely inflated expectations, desire to perform, and feelings of inequity and solitude. The sociological impact of such an inhumane approach to higher education causes real-world consequences, influencing our society at large, while transforming young adults’ lives into a living hell. The New York Times, in an extensive piece written for its Magazine section (10/11), “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety?”, recently documented the rising tide of anxiety disorders overtaking young students throughout the country. Through individual stories, it bears to tell that a large percentage of the anxiety generated in the lives of those who suffer takes root in the generalized performance anxiety promoted by our rigid school systems and encouraged by our myopic fascination with higher education. I do not possess pleasant memories of my encounter with the college acceptance process, nor do I reminisce fondly of the days I spent studying for any of the countless standardized tests that I “needed” to take in order to improve my odds. Add that to the insult of being discriminated against (yes, Jewish quotas still exist), and the feelings of helplessness we all experienced waiting for the acceptance emails to arrive. Most American teenagers continue to suffer through the anxieties of adolescence, compounded by the unholy obsession that we have for university. They suffer through the indignity of being selected, whether accepted or rejected, which begs the question: Why?

Why do we expose ourselves, our youth, to the painful experiences of selection and rejection? What brings us to, by default, tell our children that their merit and value will be determined by a bunch of “scholarly” bureaucrats who administrate this selection process, or by exams in general. Don’t be fooled by the dreams of “universal” education either, as many studies have shown (recently The Atlantic published a piece titled “The Myth of American Universities as Inequality-Fighters,” 8/17) that top universities perpetuate inequality, allowing for members of the elite to network in-house, thereby limiting the potential business/employment opportunities of those who find themselves outside the ranks of a relatively few elitist schools. This process and the educational system in general have come to define the rising elites of the post-Capitalist market and political structure. We push our kids to such extremes, thinking, usually merely fancifully, that their extra effort and pain will find due recompense in time through wider opportunities and more successful careers, years down the line. But, we must ask, is it worth it? Whose interests does this system serve?

On the face of it, it seems wholly logical to wish to see one’s offspring succeed in the fields of higher education. In fact, over the past few decades, college attendance has soared, now encompassing more than half of all the population (though fully half of them fail to complete a degree) of the proper age-groups. Now, more than ever in the history of modern civilization, the average Joe approaches the subject of higher education with an enthusiasm akin to that of the farmers who settled the vast plains of North America. The untapped treasures of countless minds of innovative entrepreneurs, scientists, and visionaries alike have converged on colleges in the U.S. and worldwide, and promise to hasten our development as a species and enrich our cultural spirit with sophistication and creativity. However, they do not swarm the quads of our colleges out of a desire to contribute to the beauty of human civilization, they do not engage in tedious, arduous study just in order to satisfy their innate desire to further the betterment of humanity, for themselves, their families, and their brothers. One who encounters any such idealism in today’s world should scoff at the thin veneer of exaggerated truth, or pity those unfortunate to actually believe in such lofty pursuits. For most of us, education’s overriding engine, and our reasoning for engaging in such dutiful and strenuous endeavors, must rely on our most primal instinct, that of mere self-preservation.

As we know, and as we have been told countless times, one cannot easily find a proper job without a university degree. Previously honorable vocations have become outdated, ousted by technology’s steady, sometimes faltering, progress. Some professions still in demand (think secretaries, teachers) now demand extra, usually superficial qualifications (see NYTimes 2/19/13 “It Takes a B.A. to Find a Job as a File Clerk”), and higher grossing professions have either become ultra-selective (e.g. MD programs), or heavily saturated (e.g. Law School). Once-honorable jobs have been replaced by menial, limited-skills service opportunities, superfluous administrative positions, and increasing rates of poverty and household debt. When the jobs give out, when employers cannot offer employees meaningful positions, men lose interest in their livelihoods, fall into perpetual underemployment or unemployment, and lay silenced (sometimes drugged), unable to demand more for themselves. The university degree has become a convenient pretext, an arbitrary scalpel that the men with money use to carve away the excess masses of humanity deemed too unintelligent or uneducated to merit in the riches of a globalized, developed economy. As we now see, the university degree has graduated from an honorary symbol of one’s erudition to one’s sole means of securing a decent livelihood. From the heights of idealism, education has fallen victim to the ills of consumerism.

Which explains why more Americans now invest in university. They do not want to take a chance with their futures. They are told that if they work hard, if they persevere and are granted the golden tickets to adulthood, they will succeed. That the investment will pay for itself in double, double, triple pay. However, the loan-sharks know that too. And so do the university administrators. Tuition has skyrocketed, public funding slashed, and student-debt ballooned in just the past the decade! Student debt cannot be bankrupted. You will be strapped like a serf to his master, to the ever-growing burden (as the interest compounds) of an unbreakable bond to the capitalist infrastructure. Those who can pay off the debt early manage to partially free themselves. Those who wait, who struggle to make payments over longer periods of time, quite literally slave their lives away paying interest on a loan that promised more than it usually pays out. Social mobility has not risen in the past thirty years in the U.S., and for all the promise of university education, it appears that the average worker would have more successfully managed without an education and without the burden of the debt.

Karl Marx, the father of modern communist thought, describes such a relationship as the source of the ills of modern society. Having replaced the traditional feudal class-structure of nobility and serfdom, capitalism advanced the interests of those with capital, i.e. wealth, who then control political, cultural, and economic spheres. True Capitalism, as Marx writes, need not utterly devastate the lives of the working and middle-class. A booming economy is good for everyone (still better for the rich, but what the heck). However, as Adam Smith concedes, when the economy begins to stall, as it has since the mid-1970’s (i.e. the beginnings of a zero growth/steady-state economy), “the competition for employment [between labourers] would necessarily be so great as to reduce the wages of labour to what was barely sufficient to keep up the number of labourers [i.e. bare subsistence]” (Wealth of Nations I). In short, the workers get hit the worst. Continued technological development brings along with it technological unemployment (when tech replaces jobs), increased competition for jobs outpaces the availability of work thereby lowering wages, and inequality becomes concretized in successive loops. Capital begets capital and the rich get richer. Jobs become scarcer and harder to qualify for. The unhealthy dynamic between employee and employer stands out more and more.

Marx writes of the psychological trauma experienced by the worker on account of his inability to take possession of his handiwork. Likening the product of his labour to the manifestation of his soul in this world, the capitalist appropriates (i.e. steals) the value of the worker’s production, severing (“alienating”) him Horcrux-style from his own existence. The worker’s existence eerily reminds us of the ghosts of the past, of the victims of humanity.

So too, when you work hard at school, know that your gain is not yours alone. A collection agency, university administrator, or future employer will surely smile at the thought of you wracking your brains for the right answer on a final. They will be assured of their immediate profits (e.g. tuition, books, rent) and of your future viability as a trained worker—and expect to exploit you handsomely. Any rationalization in terms of “respect” for culture pales in comparison to these massive commercial interests (a major focus on STEM just goes to show you). They have stripped education of its romantic qualities, and have soured the experience for all of us. Natural curiosity has lost out to commercial interests, raw creativity to the domination of finance. I mourn the loss of idealism and bemoan our complacency.

I now understand why we must go to school. I wish it was not so.