On Leaving Academia

Watching the first school year in forever gearing up to start without me, I’m trying to think of a metaphor to describe leaving academia.

It’s like being the last buggy-whip maker watching Model T’s roll off the assembly line …. no, that’s not right.  By that point, it was obvious that the horse-and-buggy age was gone and the automobile age had begun.  College as we currently know it is deader than disco, but the corpse still has some twitches left in it.  That’s because the academic version of the Model T — nationwide skill certifications, done online — hasn’t gotten off the ground yet (the buggy whip makers have themselves one hell of a lobby).

Maybe it’s like being a lumberjack on Easter Island, eyeing the last stand of hardwood.  We sure as hell don’t need another huge damn stone head, but what difference, at this point, does it make?  That’s closer to the spirit.  The Easter Islanders had to realize they were irrevocably screwed at some point, but they went on making the heads anyway.  Maybe they thought their gods would step in and save them?  But eggheads recognize no god but government, and it’s the government, via tax shortfalls and ballooning pension liabilities, that are slowly closing the universities’ money spigot.  So that can’t be right.

The best I can come up with is the later Roman Empire, which was still building forts and stuffing them with legions long after it was obvious the forts-and-legions model was unsustainable.* The Empire needed deep structural reform, down to its fundamental principles — i.e. “should we even have an Empire in the first place?”  Everyone with half a brain could see it, but the political will wasn’t there.  Because, of course, everyone with half a brain, from the Emperor to the legionary to the day laborer building the fort, was utterly invested in the current system.

That’s where the ivory tower is right now,  My former employer, Flyover State, went all-in on the college version of legions-and-forts, bigtime football and the five-star hotel dorm room experience.  They did this even though the football team isn’t good and the dorms, though lovely, are still located in the ass end of nowhere.  The campus fitness centers — plural — look like the gym where Drago worked out in Rocky IV.  The libraries, also plural, look like a combo of coffee shops and sports bars; you have to delve deep into the under-basements to find an actual book.  Each dorm has its own cafeteria, with on-duty chefs making bespoke meals.  There are so many extracurriculars that nobody bothers with the curriculars anymore — pay for an A is the order of the day, as Kanye West probably said when he was in college.

It’s completely unsustainable.  A 10% drop in enrollment — which lots of junior colleges and the like are already experiencing, thanks to a booming economy — would gut half the universities in America.  A 10% dip in the value of the yuan would finish the rest off, Chinese students paying full out-of-state tuition being the only thing that keeps most programs running.  Those lovely five-star dorms are going to be Section 8 housing here in about ten years; plan your real estate deals accordingly.

The fact is, very few people need a college education.  An apprenticeship system, combined with online certification exams, would serve for all but the heaviest lab-bench disciplines.  The Liberal Arts are a complete waste of time, and have been for decades — I spent far more time teaching remedial 5th grade English to students who can barely follow a Tweet than anything in my supposed field; actually trying to teach students something in my field would be like lecturing to butterflies about particle physics.  It’s a multi-trillion dollar scam, top to bottom.

And it’s closer to ending than anyone thinks.  I wasn’t kidding about the Chinese kids.  The minute it no longer makes sense for CCP officials to send their spare kids to American day cares for a few years, the university system is toast.  The yuan is already dropping versus the dollar, and aren’t we supposed to be getting into some kind of trade war here soon?  That’ll be a fun chapter of the history books when the rubble clears — the Great Collapse of 2019 was caused by college kids skipping the five-year day camp and getting real jobs.




*Joseph Tainter talked about this in The Collapse of Complex SocietiesIIRC.  That’s a book that should be at the top of Our Thing’s reading list.  It’s academic archaeology, but there are more lessons for us in it than just about anywhere else.
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10 thoughts on “On Leaving Academia

  1. Ganderson

    Don’t disagree with any of this, however, the “Flyover States” ( and I’m a proud grad of such an institution) will not be the first dominoes to fall. The millions of liberal arts colleges dotting the fruited will go first. The Ivy League, Ivy League type schools and other “good brands”- 7 Sisters schools , Public Ivies, etc., will hang on for a while.
    I just wrote my last college tuition check. All three of my boys went to private colleges in the Midwest- two to liberal arts institutions and one to a big-city Jesuit school. I would not be surprised if the two liberal arts schools are gone in 20 years. The Jesuit -educated kid learned some stuff, I think- but the other two? Their educations wafted very lightly over them; they were there to get a piece of paper and to play lacrosse. I like college lax- but I’m not so sure that we should maintain a giant college infrastructure to support it. However- better the lax team than the commie-filled English, Political Science and History departments!

      1. Severian Post author

        A few of the little liberal arts schools might survive. Heaven knows why, but having your name on a parking ramp must be a big thrill — I’ve taught at one of those little schools, and rich idiot alumni pay gazillions to get “the Hubert J. Dumbass Memorial Thru-Hole” added on to the stadium lot. Even the benches were named, which must’ve driven the faculty to distraction — that’s, like, capitalism, man!

        Flyover State will no doubt survive, but I have no idea what it will look like. Back in the old days, there was Flyover State, to teach the future professionals; Flyover A&M, to teach scientific farming and ROTC; and Flyover College, formerly the Flyover Normal School, to train grade school teachers. If I had to guess, I’d say all three will combine into Flyover Engineering Academy and Football Camp.

        1. Ganderson

          Brand name liberal arts schools will- NESCAC schools and some of the ACM schools- MAcalester, Carlton, etc.

  2. WOPR

    By killing the humanities, the Ivory tower sect has killed a major point of their existence. The idea of college was to instill hard science skills and provide humanities education that created a well rounded person. It was a knowledge and wisdom education. It wasn’t simply enough to have knowledge. Having the wisdom to apply it was also necessary. That meant a grounding in Western thought and history. Take that away and why spend the for four/five years that can be done in 18-24 months at a technical school?

    Short aside, my mother went back to work to help cover the cost when I went to college. She managed to work for a mid-sized insurance company that she had worked for a couple decades earlier and was doing business policy rating. Had she not had experience with it, they then required a college degree. A job that could be taught in a month or so required a degree.

    1. Severian Post author

      My first real job dropped the scales from my eyes. I went to college, like most of my generation, simply because “going off to college” is what one did. I did the Educated Idiot double major. I had no idea what I’d do with it, but it didn’t matter, because those were the Clinton Years — I got a job at a Fortune 500 by simply walking in off the street and interviewing on the spot.

      Needless to say, my job did not involve interpreting the Metaphysical Poets or discussing the finer points of Hegel. The company’s internal training program was rigorous — I got most of a finance and marketing degree right there, in about six weeks, and the rest of it I learned in another six, boning up for the required fail-and-get-fired licensing exams. I could’ve done exactly the same thing at age 18, straight out of high school. Nothing — literally nothing — I learned in college applied; I could’ve actually picked it up faster had I not forgotten my high school math in four years at Keg State.

      College was a blast, and I needed the socialization (back then, college was adult practice — you were on your own and had to figure stuff out; no personal counselors assigned to make sure you never got triggered). But looking back from middle age, there’s no question — I should’ve joined the Marines. College was a total waste of time and money, even back then.

      1. Ganderson

        I learned to speak Swedish in college- THERE’S a marketable skill! Not much else I couldn’t have on my own.

  3. WOPR - Nationalist

    Two classes really carried over from college for me, COBOL and database design. At the time everyone was like, “COBOL is dead.” Of course it was still being used at the company which hired me and was used for 15 years after that. My business classes were helpful for determining design specs. That said, I agree most did not apply to work. The DEC/VAX training classes were top notch. They were a full semester crammed into a week. The classes that they have today for computer training are a joke compared to them.

  4. Christopher Hunt

    The class I’ve gotten the most use (and enjoyment) of was “Japanese Hero Types”, a comparative literature elective.

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