Magazine | July 20, 2009, Issue

Flowering Industry

Warning: The economic crisis has changed my very personality. The bitter pessimist you know and love, who always topped off her half-full whiskey glasses because they were obviously half-empty, is no more. In her place stands a perpetually smiling optimist, perky enough for morning TV, ready to celebrate the future of American education that is just now peeking over the horizon: Our college-besotted faux middle class is due to get kicked in the slats.

Once a symbol of embarrassed defeat, community colleges are suddenly doing a land-office business. Enrollment is soaring, reports the AP, not only because of lower tuition, but because “they offer training at a time when the economy is pushing people into new industries.” That phraseology says it all: “training” instead of “education”; getting pushed instead of lured by college reps plugging their groves of academe on Career Day; and, most significantly, those “new industries.” The AP is really saying that trade schools and business schools are making a comeback because increasing numbers of Americans know what happens to people who major in sociology or fine arts and want to learn something useful. 

Community-college catalogues pulsate with usefulness. Among their offerings are accounting, office skills, drafting, mechanical engineering, marketing and distribution, electrical technology, machine technology, computer applications, legal administration, and nursing. Reading this list makes me remember, more with fear and trembling than with nostalgia, the courses I took in college. Typical was “The Flowering of 17th-Century French Neo-Classicism.” I was a sucker for any lit course described as “the flowering of,” or any history course about the era in which epaulets protected the shoulders from saber cuts. You could end up on welfare with an education like mine, but I blithely took all that stuff and nobody ever tried to talk sense to me. I was “in college,” a blessed state in the 1950s, and I was free to pursue the kind of intellectual polish once limited to 19th-century milords who made the Grand Tour. 

If I had known enough about real life to complain, someone would have said, “You might not make a living out of it, but it will make life worth living.” This is what people say to poets. There’s some truth in it, but not enough to make up for the misery I knew before I hit the writing jackpot, when I worked at Manpower office jobs. There is nothing worse than being surrounded by machines when you can define deus ex machina (“The Flowering of Greek Classical Drama”).

I finally made a stab at common sense when I took a course in Stenotype with a view toward becoming a court reporter — the person who takes down verbatim testimony on that little machine. I think I would have enjoyed it, at least dramatic criminal cases, though probably not boundary disputes and the rest of the droning detritus that makes up the legal workday. But I never got to find out. I made my first big sale (Harper’s), which inspired me to drop the course and concentrate solely on writing.

The only other useful course I ever took was in junior high school. Called “Commercial Arithmetic,” it was taught by Miss Weber, whom I think of every time I see Suze Orman. There was no textbook; Miss Weber invented her own lessons and ran them off on the school’s mimeograph machine. There was a simulated checking-account statement that we had to reconcile; utility bills containing errors that we had to find; bills of lading that we, pretending to be businessmen, had to check against our orders; and a Form 1040 full of deductions that we had to decipher and compute while pretending to be CPAs. 

Miss Weber also invented a comedy of errors involving several people and a Sears catalogue order gone terribly wrong, and made us write a complaint letter describing what had happened without going off on tangents, and without using more than one sheet of paper. I did well enough on her arithmetic exercises, but I got an A+ on my complaint letter. No editor has ever had to write “Boil it down!” in the margin of my manuscript because she got to me first. I started watching Suze Orman because she reminded me of her, but I kept on watching, and now, once again, I find myself learning something useful.

The greatest service community colleges can render is the elimination of liberal-arts majors, who, once merely useless, are now hopelessly ignorant thanks to the relentless dumbing-down of politically correct, democratized education. Math and science majors are still well educated, but they work on the other side of the company complex and the twain never meet. The B.A.’s in sociology and fine arts — and now, women’s studies and “communications” — are found working at personnel, PR, advertising, and customer service. They also write the directions and instructions that come with the product, winning themselves a place in the Owner’s Manual Hall of Fame for such efforts as: “Will not operate until it has already been after once.” Frustrated Americans desperate to talk to “a real, live person” should consider who might pick up the phone.

The community-college trend probably finds favor with Chris Matthews, who regularly frets, “Americans don’t make things anymore.” Watching a master craftsman at work is chastening, but what really gets to me is the person with an immense store of practical knowledge. Such people make me feel safe. It doubtless goes back to Miss Weber, but I derive the same feeling from the speech by insurance man Edward G. Robinson in Double Indemnity, when he rattles off the actuarial tables on suicide without a single hesitation. 

Watch it and see if you agree that he’s the real, live person we all long to talk to.


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