What's the New Mary Jane?

We've been hearing about the credit crunch for ages. With remarkably clear hindsight, pundits have been criticizing the circumstances that led to the credit crisis: unlimited aspirations, easy access to fake money, lending without sufficient capital, crippling interest rates, etc. As we are now being encouraged to spend even more to assuage the hurting bottom lines of banks and business, I think it's probably fair to say that the underlying issue has not been resolved and the lesson has not been learned: consumerism is not an infinite resource, and economic expansion cannot continue indefinitely.

As I peruse the headlines now, it occurs to me that post-secondary education might be the new credit. Desperate to revive their economic clout, leaders of Western nations are pushing towards injecting skilled labour into the workforce and encouraging people to return to university and take up learning skills deemed necessary by the government: finance, international development, business, marketing, etc. There is threatening talk of punishing those universities who graduate people with softer skills, like in the humanities - certainly funding-wise, this already happens in terms of bursaries and scholarships - and governments, while cutting overall financial support for education and loans, is throwing money at advertising the necessity of "competitiveness" in the global economy. At the same time, government rhetoric has it that mere access to education is a marker of social progress, and encourages access by students of all classes to programs in any discipline. Thus, universities swell with numbers, and while the rhetoric of social inclusion continues, the only equality gained is an equality of unemployment for all. Students saddled with enormous debt and even greater expectations of social and fiscal remuneration will graduate into a society where the economy no longer rewards their skills. The amount of equally-qualified people around them will increase, and they are uncompetitive with those who already have workplace experience. So the promise of buying yourself social mobility, this time in education as opposed to goods, once again fails to deliver.

And there is inflation here, too - A BA became the new high school diploma a long time ago. Recently, Master's degrees became the new BAs for professional disciplines. PhDs, as opposed to being rare, are now increasingly common. University departments seek tor ecruit ever more student numbers of PhDs to gain government funding and overall prestige, without real thought to what these students will do with their PhDs once they graduate. The premise of a PhD - original research into a specialized topic - has remained the same, but increasing numbers and the passage of time has meant more and more obscurantism in topics chosen, and therefore less and less applicability to the world outside. Sure, it's fun while you're doing it, but the experience is not the only part of the journey - eventually, there has to be a destination. If the destination is essentially a pyramid scheme where specialists in the arcane encourage more and more disciples, who have to take on disciples of their own to justify their existence, you create a education bubble that will have to burst sometime because supply outsrips demand.

It seems to me that all this is a result of the de-industrialization of the West. In an economy where there is opportunity for a range of labour - skilled and unskilled, applied and intellectual - education serves to specialize the workforce, and to provide social capital to those most specialized. As factories all over Europe and North America close, and production moves overseas, the focus on the consumer economy and the service industries grows. Education, therefore, becomes about educating and encouraging the consumer to consume, as well as marketing itself as a commodity. The entitlement of the marketplace ("I deserve the best I can pay for, even if it means with credit") transfers over to knowledge - "I deserve to study because I want to." It's an enormous priviledge, but not one without consequences, as its uncontrolled growth is ulimately unsistainable. Perhaps education is also the new global warming.

This is not meant to be some kind of Conservative, right-wing railing against the demise of the idyllic past where workers doffed their caps at squires. What the present has brought has been a much-needed opening-up of access to education (though that is still not ideal). Neither do I intend to pack it all in, and become a plumber or carpenter or electrician in "the honest trades." (I'm too spoiled by the system to dream of giving up my priviledge unless forced to do so by necessity.) What I wish to point out is that even from my pinko-liberal point of view, it is obvious that education still has to have a goal, and it is increasingly questionable whether its premise is tenable.

Now... back to researching my own obscure topic. Cancer cure, it ain't.


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