The Dark Ages may have led to the Enlightenment, but now the most enlightened thing we can do is return to our gloomy past. As an entry point for the middle class, our institutions of luminous knowledge have lost their efficacy.
This is an economic consequence of oversupplying the market with similarly educated labour. Too many graduates have the same qualifications, resulting in a loss of competitive edge in the workplace.
To stay relevant, students are reaching ever higher in the pursuit of more specialized degrees. It used to be that a high school certificate was all you needed to get a decent job. Now even a bachelor’s degree is often insufficient. In this credit inflation spiral, we have devalued both our labour market and the institutions we’ve relied on to populate it.
The link between school and work was connected in the mid-20th century by the president of the University of California. Clark Kerr envisioned a large middle class, and saw the postsecondary certificate as a way of achieving it. By influencing the Basic Educational Opportunity Act, Kerr effectively commoditized social mobility. If you could afford to go to college – or fill out the paperwork required for a bursary – you could effectively buy your ticket to the middle class.
But Kerr didn’t predict the perverse ramifications of such a decision. By putting degrees in the hands of anyone who could pay for them, he made the work those graduates performed less valuable. A measure that was designed to mobilize society has ground it to a standstill.
The solution to our present predicament lies in the past. In medieval times, university attendance was extremely rare. This was at least partly because school environments were so hostile. Freshmen students spent every coin they had just to get in the door, at which point they endured a hazing ritual that included dagger attacks and assaults with buckets of scalding water.
Provided they reached their dormitories alive, students slept in dank quarters, awoke before sunrise, and attended lectures in the dark (where they memorized nearly everything they learned – paper was prohibitively expensive).
When it came time to demonstrate their knowledge, students were called upon to recite epic poems in both Latin and Greek, perform a variety of musical compositions on a variety of instruments, and then bow to the same panel of judges and examiners who had made their lives intolerable for the last several years.
It’s this model we should be adopting.
The Clark Kerr view of education is that it’s a basic human right, and should be available to all. But the medieval perception was just the opposite. Becoming knowledgeable was thought to be a strenuous – and exclusionary – activity. The pursuit was so difficult that few people tried, and even fewer succeeded. Yet those who did were rewarded for their efforts.
Whereas today the word “student” is used to designate one’s intention to become qualified for mass labour, the title was once respected for its inherent worth, signaling, as it did, the path to enlightenment-through-knowledge. Graduates of university didn’t blend into the crowd, they stood apart from it. Their knowledge was considered a treasure, not a commodity.
Today, the overabundance of qualified labour has led to a dangerous, expansionary spiral. We’re paying more for our degrees, and getting less in return. Our graduates are arriving to the world of work and finding that there are millions of people with exactly the same qualifications, competing for exactly the same jobs.
The industrialization of an education, and the commoditization of its end result, has disempowered the same social class it was meant to liberate. In this fundamental irony, a basic economic principle has been overlooked: The value of a commodity is determined by its scarcity.
The more available and abundant something is, the less it’s worth.
To turn this trend around, fewer people should be furthering their educations. With fewer people furthering their educations, value will be restored to the university degree. And with value restored to the degree, the workplace will function as it should: as a powerful, competitive meritocracy.
While a privileged few fret about the problems of philosophy, the rest of us will go happily unschooled, living student debt-free, making our own jobs, and being living exemplars of the age-old axiom that ignorance really is bliss. Rarefied in such a manner, we might then find that knowledge takes on a special luminosity.
Then, finally, we’ll have a truly enlightened society – just like in the Dark Ages.
Zander Sherman is the author of The Curiosity of School: Education and the Dark Side of Enlightenment.