I spent several years as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, working towards an English major and philosophy minor. Between depression, a loss of faith in myself and in the institution, and financial difficulties, I eventually gave up my pursuit of a degree as hopeless.
Years later, as part of a process of rebuilding my life, with my partner’s support and encouragement, I spent a few years at a community college. My original plan was to work through the prerequisites for a computer science degree program, then transfer. I found most of the coursework interesting but surprisingly easy, with the critical exception of calculus; I easily got A’s in courses on programming, system administration, and networking, while spending 90% or more of my study time on calculus, in which I got a C. Barely.
I re-considered my plans, and decided to try to finish a certificate program in Linux system administration, then try to get a job on the strength of that, while my partner went to graduate school in order to restart her career; perhaps I’d go back to college some time after that. A few months after that, I got my current job in IT, where I’ve been for several years now, and my partner did get her graduate degree.
From this account, one might be inclined to draw the conclusion that my liberal arts education was a waste of time, and that my practically-oriented community college courses were my salvation.
However, I know that part of my success in those practical courses was based largely on growing up with regular access to computers, with some past work experience, and with having installed Linux on my desktop at home and monkeying around with it. And, the technical interview for my current job focused on my knowledge of shell scripting and Perl programming – skills I have never actually used on the job. In fact, despite the fact that I’ve got “IT consultant” and “operations engineer” as job titles, I don’t think the technical knowledge I acquired before I started this job was at all relevant. Anyone who is literate, and familiar with using a Windows PC, could do my job.
Meanwhile, I keep looking at job listings for jobs that (claim to) require the skills I was trained for, but require a computer science or engineering degree. You don’t need a computer science degree to configure a Web server running a LAMP stack, and it’s entirely possible to get a CS degree without learning much relevant to practical tasks.
From that, one might be inclined to draw the conclusion that higher education is really just a matter of creating artificial standards for stratifying workers, as a means of social control, so that you do need to get some sort of degree, but the content of what you study is almost irrelevant to your career prospects. I’ve said before that what a four-year degree means is that you’re willing to conform to expectations of middle-class professionalism and that you’re probably in so much debt that you don’t dare rock the boat.
However, from time to time, I run into people I knew as undergraduates at UC Berkeley, and I notice there are some other patterns to take into account.
On the cynical side, a few times I’ve run into people I knew who were English majors, who graduated and moved on to various careers, who don’t seem to have any interest in literature. There was a seminar on John Milton that I gave up on, taking an incomplete; I remember meeting another student from that class, who passed it, who couldn’t remember who John Milton was.
On the other hand: there was my first girlfriend, who went on to become a professional poet; her sharp-witted, viciously sarcastic roommate, who I recently read is now a successful playwright; the two easy-going guys across the hall in my college dorm, one who had a talent for languages who went on to become a lawyer working in a non-profit that assists low-income immigrants from Asia in attaining citizenship, and the other spent years as a labor organizer before going on to become a history professor. Ironically, my best friend for years, with whom I cut ties in part out of frustration with his apathy about politics, went on to become president of a labor union that was formed through a rank-and-file revolt against the bureaucratic sclerosis of an older, larger union. Every now and then I run across a radical left activist with a deep knowledge of theory, who was involved with a small circulation newsletter I’d found a few times on a countertop in the English department office. And there have been several journalists, right and left, that I remember arguing with when they were students.
The conclusion I get from all that is that colleges are corrupted institutions, just as are all major institutions in our society; the purposes they claim to serve are not quite the real purposes they serve. However, with a combination of luck and hard work and sincerity, some people manage to dig through all the bullshit, and jump through the ludicrous flaming rings, and manage to reach the idealized purpose of a liberal arts education.
And just as a final note, from my current perspective as a nominal high-tech worker, who spends many of his nominal working hours reading and participating in political and cultural debates on the Internet, I see a lot of reason to wish for a resurgence of the ideal of a liberal arts education – in particular, valuing knowing the basic methods of cultural criticism and social science as well as natural science and engineering. But that, of course, also depends upon access to leisure, in both the classical and contemporary senses.