Phi Beta Cons

The Art of Non-Conformity And Societal Deleveraging

Chris Guillebeau, author of The Art of Non-Conformity, is most well known as a world traveler. In fact, his current life mission is to travel to every one of the world’s 192 U.N.-recognized nations by his 35th birthday in 2013.

In his book (he also has a website), he talks at one point about his experience in higher education, and his “Aha!” moment about the nature of what so many are now calling the “higher-education bubble”:

After working in West Africa for four years as a volunteer aid worker, I returned to the United States to attend graduate school in the fall of 2006. The official story is that I completed a two-year master’s degree in International Studies at the University of Washington. The real story is that I spent $32,000 to learn about motivations.

Later on we’ll look at the overall experience of higher education in comparison to the formation of the writing career I began shortly thereafter. For now, the important point is that about halfway through checking off a list of required courses for graduate school, I realized that roughly 80 percent of the assignments I worked on had little or no value. The projects were simply “busywork” designed to keep students working on something so that the system could sustain itself. . . .

Just as faking it can be an effective way to get through higher education, mediocrity is the standard by which much work is judged once you get out of school.

Chris Guillebeau is a man firmly at odds with an ordinary life. He’s a self-proclaimed “fighter of the status quo.” His entire professional enterprise is devoted to counter-cultural thinking.

And yet even Guillebeau, apparently, needed to complete 18 years of education, including two years in a masters program, before the moment came when he realized the entire system is predicated on “busywork.”

And Guillebeau is probably the exception rather than the rule among those masters students, most of whom tack on massive debt to their portfolios, perhaps acquire a sliver of added knowledge, and leave thinking the system is sane.

For-profit universities are fleecing students who will never complete their degree (and fleecing government programs to boot), and traditional institutions calibrate cultural mediocrity as the new norm.

So, while I’m certainly sympathetic to the notion of a higher-education bubble — of too many going and paying into a system from which too few will graduate and benefit — I’m less inclined to think we’re yet nearing a critical tipping point.

Our cultural attitude of college-for-everyone (like its now-crushed political cousin, that dream of home-ownership-for-all) is an exercise in a cultural fantasy that will likely necessitate a massive sort of societal de-leveraging from existing over-investment.

And if the Chris Guillebeaus of the world — the self-described agitators for non-conformity — need 18 years to realize the debased nature of formal learning, it would seem we have a while still to go before things trickle down to the mainstream consciousness. 

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