Atossa Abrahamian of The New Inquiry is right: four years of undergraduate work (or six-plus years of postsecondary study) simply does not make for good worker bees. The same skills typically required of a successful college student — independent thinking, self-management, critical reflection, and a not-so-subtle aversion to established dogmas — are antithetical to those inculcated within the highly bureaucratized workplace environments of today’s Fortune 500 companies. The trend toward the wunderkind as an intern or summer employee (what Abrahamian refers to as “Going LeBron”) represents a perfect solution to this particular kind of problem.
And from a corporate perspective, it’s hard not to see the college graduate as a “problem.” In addition to higher salary demands, insurance coverage, and the potential for spouses and/or children to pull the worker’s attention away from the company, there’s also the damning list of skills the graduate honed while attending State College A&M:
“Independent thinking” = Poor teammate
“Self-management” = Works at his/her own pace
“Critical reflection” = Too many questions
“Not-so-subtle aversion to established dogmas” = Potential whistleblower
In nearly all respects, the holder of a university diploma — and especially the holder of a diploma which prominently displays a degree in the humanities — is poorly suited to a drone-like existence of filing manuscripts, copy-and-pasting names into form e-mails, and getting “intimate with a large pile of contracts and a scanner” (Abrahamian). Such monotony runs counter to everything a (good) undergraduate program should encourage its students to expect out of life, and the company who chooses to hire someone with a B.A. will have to engage in a rather aggressive “re-education” program in order to fit an undoubtedly square peg into an unforgivingly round hole.
But, I would argue, this is precisely how the system should be working if we are to avoid the implosion of a free, independent society.
On a fundamental level, college is a social laboratory in which students of diverse minds, bodies, and cultures can experiment with the way(s) they choose to view the world. This lab contains everything from lecture halls and bookstores to frat parties and honors programs, and from somewhere in the middle of this primordial soup emerges an awareness of the relationship between self and world that cannot fully develop from within the hive-like structures of The Family or The Corporation. Intellectual free agency is, by and large, a product of advanced education: the more one knows, the more questions one can ask. And the only time a person has (nearly) full responsibility for this question-asking-and-answering impulse is during the college years, when personal proclivities and interests remain unfettered by the demands of one’s family or the strictures of one’s supervisor. The ability to ask and answer “big” questions is one of the hallmarks of engaged citizenship, and if we fail to provide access to the time and space necessary for developing such a vital faculty, we run the risk of forever turning ourselves over to those who would use our uncritical nature against us — to become cogs in a machine so vast that we would steadfastly disavow its very existence.
As Guy Debord writes in his 1967 polemic, Society of the Spectacle:
At that point ideology is no longer a weapon, but a goal. The lie which is no longer challenged becomes lunacy. Reality as well as the goal dissolve in the totalitarian ideological proclamation: all it says is all there is. […] Extended everywhere, the bureaucracy must be the class invisible to consciousness: as a result, all social life becomes insane. (Sections 105-06)
Though I fully recognize the inadequacy of the current university model for preparing graduates to work in many fields — I, too, have experienced moments of despair while looking at my two framed degrees and thinking, “Really? I went through all of THAT in order to be doing THIS?” — I worry more about the changes we aren’t demanding from corporations than the changes corporations themselves are making in HR departments worldwide. If we refuse to challenge the bureaucratic lie that ignorance is bliss, that work sets you free, then perhaps we deserve at least some measure of the punishment that is a horde of “Angelines” marching into the office and drinking all our coffee.
For me, though, the critical point lies at the end of Abrahamian’s essay, where she laments the fact that, instead of teaching her how to be a good employee, all “college did was make me want more then [sic] the adult world has to offer.”
In truth, that probably is all that college teaches anyone: the desire to question why the world works as it does and why it couldn’t possibly work another, better way. (I know that’s the fundamental lesson from my college experience.) But rather than see this as a failure of the university system, I see this as its triumph over the complacency and complicity that threatens one’s sense of self in every way, shape, and from. The university experience is, above all else, an exploration of selfhood that encourages students to figure out who they are, who the world wants them to be, and then to begin navigating the immense chasm that inevitably exists between those two extremes.
“To be nobody-but-yourself,” E.E. Cummings wrote, “in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”
A university education may not afford one a leg up on the teenage summer intern willing to mindlessly perform the same job for little or no pay, but it does offer something infinitely more valuable: the ability to arm oneself against the status quo via a phalanx of pointed questions about the histories, hegemonies, and hierarchies that often stand between the adult world we have and the adult world we want to have.
Rogito, ergo sum.