Peter Thiel’s remarks about a supposed higher education bubble, along with his 20 Under 20 initiative, have sparked a great deal of discussion these past several days. Unfortunately, the quality of that discussion has been disappointingly predictable, centered around status quo-defending critics and bubble-defending champions, with a few people falling somewhere in the middle.
Largely missing from this discussion, however, is the question of whether it even makes sense to discuss education in America in terms of bubbles. It doesn’t. Because the biggest problem with higher education is institutional, not economic:
Our higher education system largely fails to educate. This is far worse than a bubble. It’s nothing less than a deep institutional, cultural, societal and indeed humanitarian crisis.
The very real problems that Thiel identifies aren’t symptoms of a bubble but of an institutional crisis of education; they only look like a bubble because we’ve learned to treat education as a market-driven commodity rather than a social good.
You don’t have to be an economist to see the rapid commoditization of higher education over the last two decades (probably longer) and its corresponding failure to actually educate. Students pay top dollar, not for quality, but for a name brand education. For-profit universities treat students as cash cows, making unrealistic promises and even outright lies to increase enrollment. Classes, even at elite universities, can top 500 students and are disproportionately taught by poorly paid adjuncts and graduate students, not professors. Cheating and grade inflation are rampant and quietly tolerated. All of this points to a spectacular betrayal of the educational principles that these institutions are supposed to uphold – namely, to educate. Meanwhile, rising tuition and student debt are justified on the increasingly faith-based grounds that it all will pay off in the long run.
By commoditizing higher education, we have not only given it away to the highest bidder, or borrower, as the case may be; we have impoverished the notion of becoming educated itself, at great social and economic harm.
The perceived value of education has little to do with one’s ability to think critically, write well or solve complex problems, and everything to do with whether you have a piece of paper (and the debt that comes with it) that purportedly enables you to earn more money.
Perhaps this has always been the case, but the dumbing down of American college students, combined with the treatment of education as a mere tool to increase earning power, is very, very real, and it’s very, very bad for society. Case in point: the ever-practical business major accounts for 20 percent of all undergrad majors, but as a group, they learn less and spend far less time studying than their non-business major peers. Business programs are also, not surprisingly, highly lucrative for universities, leading to an institutional focus on quantity of students over quality of education.
I’m not disagreeing with the problems in higher education that Thiel has pointed out. But to treat all of this as a bubble, on par with housing or high technology, is to not only misunderstand the problem but also to contribute to an impoverished, commoditized view of education that values a monetary return-on-investment over intellectual cultivation, that treats education as a resource, not unlike wood or oil, to be exploited and profited from, rather than a vital ingredient of a healthy society.
And so we must ask ourselves, what does it mean to be educated? If education means churning out obedient, unthinking, indebted consumers, then we’ve done very well. But if it means anything – anything at all – more than that, we have failed massively.
So you tell me. What does it mean to be educated? The stakes are high, higher even than most of us realize. Our answer to this question holds the very roots of our salvation… and our demise.