Actual tweet from a college football player, whose name I will keep to myself:

“I do not want to go to school.”

As a rabid consumer of college football and active Twitter-er*, I follow lots of “student athletes”, and courtesy of the ubiquitous re-tweet, am privy to the thoughts of many more I do not actively keep up with. What I notice is by and large is most of these guys hate school. Hate it. They tweet in sub-4th grade grammar about what a labor Econ 101 is. What a waste of their time school is. They notoriously need tutors not only to propel them through their studies, but to make sure they attend in the first place. These guys are the result of rules put in place by the big leagues of most major US sports: in basketball, it’s referred to as “One and Done”. Go to college for one year and then you can declare for the pros. In college football, guys are required to be 3 years removed from high school in order to be eligible for the rookie draft to “mentally and physically” develop. There’s no doubt that they turn into physical specimens. Most high level football programs do a fair enough job of teaching the guys to muster more discipline than they would have attained had they remained in the wilds of their previous environments, but there is a fatal flaw in this forced education. In order to have anything more than accidental or sporadic success, you need to have an ideal to strive for. Leonard Rose always talked about hearing the sound you want and then playing. Picture the goal in order to reach it. Same here. Most of these athletes don’t dream about a degree, about finishing school. They dream in terms of contracts and endorsements, of models and ears dripping in diamonds. As a big believer in our wacky American experiment, I say let them. But when you put something in the way of a motivated person’s goal, they will dispense with whatever that hindrance is with haste and little deference.

Does anyone else see the problem with filling our institutions of higher education with people who are largely unqualified and unhappy to be there? If the issue was reversed, there would be no question: Would we allow an athlete whose leg is certain to shatter play football? Would we put our slowest runner on the Olympic relay team? What would that do to the team? What message would it send?

Take a look at this, posted on Ain’t Baroque.

This is only a slight exaggeration of the bizarre-yet-common exchange, and it’s repeated year in and year out at music schools all over the country.

The problem with sending nearly everyone to college is it disfigures what continuing education should be and also sends the message that skilled trade workers who would not normally pass through a university are somehow inadequate.

We’re turning institutions of higher learning into 13th grade, and considering how spotty our K-12 can be, that does not bode well. My father teaches a university level critical thinking course, a subject that serves as a kind of canary in the mineshaft or exit poll for our high schools. It is astonishing how many students lack the ability to use reasoning, which could arguably be pointed to as the entire genesis of higher education: learning how to make better, more sophisticated choices when using inferences to draw conclusions. Giving degrees to the ill-equipped in order to fulfill some Byzantine ideal is like legalizing shoplifting to drive down crime rates. It’s cooking the books, straight out of Enron’s “mark to market” accounting treatment, where as soon as a profit was projected it was actually added to the balance sheet. This stuff only works on paper, and even then, not well. Just because you have more people in college than ever before does not mean we are a more educated country.

It’s just a shame, the whole thing. The job market is now so heavily front-loaded with people who have degrees that the employment bar necessarily gets raised to make sure the truly motivated people are the ones who end up with the key positions. The new graduates have a mountain of debt and a piece of paper to tuck under their Starbucks cap while they work their tails off and wonder what the hell they just spent 4 (or 5, or 6) years doing while a few people go back for a masters if they’re not broke or working in an area completely unrelated to their alleged field. This is not the same context the degrees of 20 years ago existed in, where a bachelor’s degree meant that you were really serious about what you were doing.

What happened to getting good at something by doing it and going from there? Learning from someone who is an expert? Maybe at a university…maybe not? I almost wrote “It would be nice if we were a country of people who were all truly appropriate for the university environment.” but then I realized that I don’t agree with that statement. It takes all kinds of skills and knowledge to make a well rounded culture, and too much of any one influence is a detriment to the whole. Not all wisdom is scholarly, and going to college certainly doesn’t make you smart.

“Much education today is monumentally ineffective. All too often we are giving young people cut flowers when we should be teaching them to grow their own plants.”

-John W. Gardener

*Quite possibly the earliest I have ever used a fake word in a post. An auspicious start.

Cartoon by the undeniably clever Gary Larson, of course.

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14 Responses

  1. I agree that we are pursuing the wrong things with our higher education system. One issue, as I see it, is money. A competitive sports team or two can generate tremendous income for a university and marketing (through sports success) that is hard to match any other way. Until there is sufficient funding for college level education without sports, we'll be saddled with unfortunate punchlines.

    (How many football players does it take to screw in a light bulb? Just one, but he gets 3 hours credit for it.)

  2. This is rare that I can say this to anybody, but …

    I 100% agree with everything you just wrote above.

  3. Thanks guys! I mulled this post over and over again: my worst fear is to be misunderstood, and I was running the inevitable critical comments in my head while I hesitated to hit "publish". But then I took my own advice and remembered that criticism is either an opportunity to have my mind changed or (more likely in this case) to feel more secure about my point of view.

    Still, I was happy and relieved to see your supportive comments here first.

  4. This problem does go far beyond music departments. People tend to pick majors at "lesser" state schools based on what they can't do. Can't do math? Stay away from anything that needs math like business, physics, and math. Can't remember anything? Stay away from history and any kind of science. Don't understand grammar? Stay away from any kind of foreign language. What's left? English. Yup. If you're lucky all your courses will concentrate on gender studies, and your (mostly adjunct) teachers will let you get away with writing that is substandard for high school. You may not pass your classes that are taught by people who actually expect you to read and write intelligently.

    What's left? Education and Music (for those who don't have the discipline or the coordination for a major in Physical Education). Better still: Music Ed!

  5. I hear you, Elaine. That's part of the reason I'm doing Education Science across the country at Hopkins and not Music Ed at one of the more convenient schools nearby. I want a Masters with some teeth to it: the curriculum panders to no one, and the fact that they had to make an academic exception to even admit a Certain Stark Raving Cellist was a good sign. These people are serious about what they do, and so am I.

    Sad and true: I was surprised to have a whole 2 hour UK History class at Northridge devoted to the differences between "their, there,and they're." I guess I have to salute what the prof was trying to do, but this was a 300-level class and people still didn't know what the difference was.

  6. Actually, if someone has a poor grasp of grammar, spelling, arithmetic, logic and/or critical thinking skills by the time they are in college, it shows a failure in high school education.

    Also, the focus on doing only what you want or what you are good at, whether it be in sports, music, painting, or astrophysics, means that you end up ill equipped in many aspects in the real world.

    So for the athlete who doesn't want to go to college and for the student in the video with the long litany of things they want to avoid, I have to say that there are many things you have to do in life that are not fun or enjoyable, but you have to do them anyway.

    At the minimum, you should master basic life skills so you can get through your life without being completely fleeced by people who want to take advantage of you. Sorry if this impedes on your fun time or stardom but you will end up better off for having done so.

    And where are the parents in all these scenarios? How good of a parent can you be if your child can't spell or add or form coherent sentences, arguments, conclusions by the time they are college age?

  7. D: Indeed. I was lucky to be raised by parents whose tutelage I still lean on far more than anything I learned in high school or college with the exception of:

    Dr. Venekotter's AP English, grade 12
    Mrs. Norton's French classes, grades 10-12
    all of my CSUN music courses

    The cultural component of this issue is so rich that it deserves an entire life's work.

    One point of light on the athletic front is Myron Rolle, who managed the near impossible few years back, playing hardcore Safety for the Seminoles and then delaying the draft to go to Oxford on the Rhodes scholarship.

  8. Oh you're not kidding about degree requirements for "ordinary" work. If you want to apply for an Admin Assistant position, you must have a bachelors. While I'm no dummy, and have been used on multiple occasions to spiff up (i.e. make comprehensible) an MBA grad's email, I was a terrible student and have not received a Bachelors in anything. I "paid my dues" figuratively for 3 years of temping to prove to the company I wasn't an idiot before I was able to literally pay my dues as a Union office worker with the official title of Secretary. Because why shouldn't you require your e-mail sender and paper filer to have a minor degree when execs in your company have pretty major Masters degrees and can't spell or write a coherent sentence?

    My friend, OTOH, has a terrific job in a unique profession. She technically makes more than I do, but so much goes to pay off the student loans for her Masters that we are nearly equivalent.

    My friend's dad is a mechanic and can fix damn near anything. He also is a fine carpenter and craftsman. And yet he's looked down on by many people because he went to trade school rather than a University.

    College is great and part of why it's so great is that not everything you learn there is going to apply directly to all parts of your future career.

  9. This is incredibly insightful and the lil video made me gag in recognition. I knew many copies of that girl (and the guy version of her, usually a guitarist) in the UCSC music dept.

  10. Mark, you'd be surprised. With extremely limited exceptions, ALL the big sports lose money for their colleges. All of them. They take a financial bath on their football and basketball teams year after year, but it's about Macho and it's about competitiveness, so they are willing to flush millions of dollars down the metaphorical toilet while the real toilets in the library back up for want of a plumber.

    There's just no good solution to this, except for people to value education enough to make EVERYONE pay for it. The reason many CA colleges are doing 13th-grade work is because of Prop 13, which essentially destroyed the CA K-12 schools by starvation. Keep the standards high while refusing to enable the kids to meet them, and no one goes to college unless they are from a filthy-rich neighborhood.

    Lower the standards so more kids can get in, and at least you get to try to crank them up to speed.

    Of course, the REAL solution is to keep the standards high AND crank the kids up to speed early enough that they can hit the ground running in college, but that takes the dreaded evil *T*A*X*E*S*. And in this country, everyone wants everything but doesn't want to pay for it.

    And honestly, if you DO pay taxes, it just gets shoveled into some bankster's or insurance CEO's pocket by a crooked politician anyhow. 🙁 The whole thing is just ugly on a stick.

  11. That's indeed a large problem and we have exactly the same in the Netherlands… :-

    Your blog is awesome, btw! xMM

    My English site is @

  12. Ms. Emily – Where to begin? As not only an “adult college student” but also an “adult cello student” I would offer the following:

    1. There needs to be a balance between an education “earned” and an education “observed”. GPA may be in indicator of this, but having seen young adults cheat the system to get a passing score is disheartening.

    2. Personal pride and “perception pride” are two different things in my book. Personal pride is about excellence regardless of outcome. “Perception pride” smacks of selfishness.
    3. It’s all about the “Benjamin’s”. Parents and mentors HAVE to get away from focusing on financial wealth.

    Wealth does not equate to happiness. Sounds cliché – but it is oh so true. Good post…

  13. @cellomusings: "Parents and mentors HAVE to get away from focusing on financial wealth.

    Wealth does not equate to happiness. Sounds cliché – but it is oh so true. Good post…"

    I agree. With so much emphasis on earning money I think a lot of people are compromising their selves and feeling more pressure than ever. Sadly, not everyone can be rich, but they can have a fulfilling educational/work/life experience. Sometimes you just have to let go of that predetermined "American Dream." and write your own story.

    Though, this perspective may be difficult to understand until you've matured and stumbled a few times through life…hmmm.

    Well, thank you Emily for inspiring some deep thoughts. xx

  14. I'm leery of not focusing on being able to put a roof over one's head. IME, coming from a family with relatively little, it's people who can expect to ask their parents for the down payment on their houses and actually get it that say that financial reward doesn't matter. 🙁 I've been in the situation where it most certainly did, or else the heat got turned off by mistake in the dead of winter. You can bet that being able to keep the heat on matters, and once one goes through that — and more importantly, one watches one's parents go through that, where their teeth fell out one by one because they had to spend the money taking care of ours — one NEVER can be cavalier about making a living ever again.

    Sorry to be a downer, but it really is possible to be artistically motivated AND pragmatic. In fact, one had better be both. If you're only one or the other, life's not going to be pleasant. Keep in mind that what you may need to say to a kid from a well-heeled family will come across as poison for a kid from more humble circumstances, and vice versa as well.

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