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.