Were aliens to descend unnoticed into our society, the better to observe our political debates, they might be forgiven for reporting home that the primary issue facing the United States government is that not enough Americans are going to college. For the sort of people who make our news and drive our debates, the university has become an obsession and a totem. On television, institutions nobody has ever heard of take out gauzy advertisements that promise that they, and they alone, make possible the American dream. 60 Minutes features interviews with adults who complain that the enormous loans they took out in order to complete postgraduate degrees are, in the absence of a concrete return, proving tough to pay back. The Democratic party, whose leading lights are at present engaged in a seemingly endless game of one-upmanship, is working out whether the number of dollars it wishes to spend paying off the debt of these students should start with a modest “B” or a throw-it-out-of-the-window “T.” Even multimillionaire actors, whose children could do anything they want to with their lives, have taken to bribing faculty members in order to get their indifferent offspring into the most prestigious ivory towers. Where once men fretted about getting into heaven, now they fuss about the chances of being accepted by Harvard. Samuel Coleridge’s transformation of the German word Klerisei from its initial meaning of “clergy” into its newer meaning of “clerisy” has, at last, been completed.
The presumptions that underpin our present scramble for diplomas are as follows: that it would be a good thing if more people went to college; that going to college is the best — or perhaps the only — way to get ahead in life, leading, as it supposedly does, to automatic improvement of one’s lot; that, irrespective of what it does to the job market and to productivity, our society is materially improved by having more people with paper degrees in their possession; and that, in consequence of all of these things, it represents a major scandal that people who wish to educate themselves further are obliged to pay to do so. Alongside these presumptions are a set of implications that, while rarely acknowledged openly, are present nevertheless: that those who do not go to college have in some way failed — or that they have been failed; that every time a person declines to attend college, he is making America a little stupider on aggregate; and, by extension, that people who lack college degrees but nevertheless are successful are not demonstrating an alternative way of living their lives so much as muddling through as best they can absent vital instruction from their superiors.
Back in 2015, Howard Dean suggested on MSNBC’s Morning Joe that Scott Walker, a man who at that point was in his second term as governor of Wisconsin, was not qualified to be president because he had not completed his college degree. “I think there are going to be a lot of people who worry about that,” Dean suggested, before explaining that he himself was concerned “about people being president of the United States not knowing much about the world.” That Dean was characterizing as ignorant and unqualified a man who had, by that point, been successfully running a large American state for half a decade was preposterous. But it was also well in line with where we were headed as a society.
Today, college has become our go-to yardstick for minimal competence. Take a look at almost any job listing for almost any desk job in any city, and you will see “college degree” listed as an essential requirement. The argument in favor of this arrangement is that if a candidate can demonstrate that he has completed such a degree, he can be assumed to be both relatively smart and capable of sticking with things to their end. Which, in some cases, is of course true. But it is telling that none of the other experiences that demonstrate capacity and tenacity tend to make an appearance in the listings. Know what else demonstrates an ability to stick things out? Military service. Running a small business. Working at a charity. Training as a plumber. Working on a farm. Learning to weld. Keeping another job for a long period of time.
Are these regarded as inferior occupations? Increasingly, they seem to be. In a 1780 letter to Abigail, John Adams wrote that he “must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy,” while his “sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.” There is a great deal in this observation, and, within the context of late-18th-century, mid-revolutionary America, Adams’s assessment was spot-on. Nevertheless, were his words to be taken literally, such a progression would eventually create a society without any food. That we are able to study poetry and music is a great and worthwhile luxury — a luxury of which we should be both jealous and proud. But now, as ever, it remains a luxury that is paid for by those who continue to engage wholeheartedly in the other callings to which Adams refers. No society, however smart, will last long if those who enjoy that luxury come to look down upon those who make it possible.
The risks here are not just practical, but political and social, too. If we reach a point at which our elites — almost all of whom have college degrees, and almost all of whom credit those degrees as the reason for their success — begin to disdain and dismiss those who do not have degrees, we will reach a point at which we have created a de facto cultural underclass. In a nation premised upon equality, this would be a disastrous social development; pace Singapore, we do not want to create two discrete classes of people in this country — one that has the “correct” credentials and, with them, access to the upper echelons, and one that does not. But to do so would also be extremely self-indulgent and hopelessly myopic, for it is not at all obvious that the average liberal-arts graduate is more educated, more capable, more useful, and more rounded than is, say, the average electrician. The Democratic party seems increasingly proud of the fact that it is winning more and more voters with college degrees, the underlying assumption being that those are better voters than those without. That is not so. It takes all sorts to make the world go around, and it is just as absurd to lionize, say, farmers as “real Americans,” at the expense of everyone else, as it is to do the opposite.
It is absurd, too, to prioritize the acquisition of abstract knowledge to such a degree that we lose sight of why it is that most people want to go to college in the first instance, which is to help them secure meaningful work. (This, incidentally, is crucial to the argument for public subsidies; mere self-improvement, while valuable, makes a far less compelling case.) Alas, to listen to the current debate over higher education is usually to listen to people who habitually mistake the trees for the forest. In the long run, it is not the possession of a piece of paper that makes one’s life worthwhile, but the opportunities that that piece of paper opens up — if, indeed, it does. It would be helpful if, as a culture, we focused more on those opportunities than on the means by which they are obtained.
And, if we did that, we might find ourselves broadening our horizons and championing on an equal footing the tens of millions of people who do satisfying and worthwhile work completely outside of the academy. Just under 40 percent of working Americans have a bachelor’s degree, and just under half have an associate’s degree or more — which, put another way, means that the majority of people in America who earn a paycheck each week have done so via another route. I am a history major who enjoyed his degree thoroughly, and I have no intention of badmouthing the liberal arts. And yet, pleased as I was with my time at university, I am keenly aware that my education accorded me a fairly narrow expertise, that it was conducted in a fairly low-stakes environment, and that there is enormous value to be found in places where education-for-its-own-sake types such as I do not traditionally look.
Have you ever watched a plumber work? I don’t mean, “Have you ever buzzed around the house doing other things on your cell phone while a plumber got on with his job in the background?” I mean have you ever really watched him work? And have you ever considered what would happen to your home if he got that work wrong?
What about a mechanic? Or a carpenter? Or the guy who fixes your air conditioner in August? Have you ever watched a group of builders putting up a house? These are real skills, the product of real care and expertise. And they pay pretty well, too. The median income of an American farmer is $43,945, which is higher than the median income of Americans with bachelor’s degrees in early-childhood education ($39,000), human services and community organization ($41,000), and elementary education ($43,000). The median income of an American mechanic is $46,919, which is higher than the median income of Americans with bachelor’s degrees in drama ($45,000) and art and music ($46,000). The median income of an American plumber is $52,404, which is higher than the median income of Americans with bachelor’s degrees in art history ($49,000), humanities ($49,000), anthropology ($49,000), sociology ($51,000), ethnic and civilization studies ($51,000), art and graphic design ($51,000), botany ($52,000), and modern languages ($52,000). The median income of an American electrician is $54,327, which is higher than the median income of Americans with bachelor’s degrees in English literature ($53,000), advertising and public relations ($54,000), history ($54,000), and communications ($54,000). The median income of an American home builder is $59,275, which is higher than the median income of Americans with bachelor’s degrees in journalism ($56,000) and geography ($58,000).
To look into these numbers is to be surprised by how much distance exists in America between jobs that pay well and jobs that enjoy widespread cultural prestige. In 2015, truckers who worked for private fleets made a median income of $73,000 — a little more than the median income for Americans with master’s degrees. Which . . . well, which makes our cultural monomania seem a little odd — especially when one considers that, per the American Trucking Association, there is currently a shortage of truck drivers to the tune of around 60,000 positions. When properly established and liberally run, the university is a wonderful institution. And, of course, there are many fields of employment for which college attendance is a prerequisite — and should be. But we might consider rebalancing our cultural attention a touch. Can you remember the last time that a character in a teen movie left school and began an apprenticeship? Can you recall the last time an advertisement depicted someone saving up their pennies to buy the Ford F-150 they needed to start their construction company? Can you recollect the last time that a TV show made its Generic Aspirational Character the owner of a plumbing firm rather than a lawyer? We throw big parties for people who finish their master’s degrees. We make jokes about people who drive trucks. Why?
An America that celebrated both of those routes on an equal footing would not only be an America that exhibited a healthier attitude toward the necessity, and structure, of college attendance; it would be an America that exhibited a healthier attitude toward the value of work, and of the people who work, in general. Increasingly our politics revolves around cultural questions as much as, if not more than, it revolves around economic questions. Indeed, many of the economic questions we are debating at present are the product of prevailing class preferences as much as they are of old-fashioned pocketbook math. There is not much that government can do to remedy the natural fallout from our transition to the “information economy.” But it can certainly decline to overstate the case, and, as a people, we can refuse to accept a cultural settlement in which the custody of certain credentials is treated as an indication of general social value.
One of the more attractive elements of American society — at least as I saw it growing up abroad — was that it celebrated its rebels, its self-starters, its autodidacts, and its dropouts as heroes rather than as losers. A culture that lionizes a Steve Jobs is likely to get more Steve Jobses. A country that cherishes the man who can build his own home is likely to get more people who can build their own homes. A country that depicts welders and truckers as a crucial part of its fabric is likely to avoid shortages in the supply of those trades. By contrast, a country that reorganizes its economy in order to ensure that everyone is entitled to follow a path set by bureaucrats and accreditation agencies is likely to get more bureaucrats and accreditation agencies. If diversity really is our strength, we might start acting like it.
This article appears as “American Dreams” in the August 12, 2019, print edition of National Review.