The Wall Street Journal today features a quote from Joseph Schumpeter, writing in 1942, on ways in which college education can make a person less psychologically fit and less willing to engage in manual labor, notwithstanding greater employment opportunities in manual trades:
The man who has gone through a college or university easily becomes psychically unemployable in manual occupations without necessarily acquiring employability in, say, professional work. His failure to do so may be due either to lack of natural ability—perfectly compatible with passing academic tests—or to inadequate teaching … those who are unemployed or unsatisfactorily employed or unemployable drift into the vocations in which standards are least definite or in which aptitudes and acquirements of a different order count. They swell the host of intellectuals in the strict sense of the term whose numbers hence increase disproportionately. They enter it in a thoroughly discontented frame of mind. Discontent breeds resentment. And it often rationalizes itself into that social criticism which as we have seen before is in any case the intellectual spectator’s typical attitude toward men, classes and institutions especially in a rationalist and utilitarian civilization.
Well, here we have numbers; a well-defined group situation of proletarian hue; and a group interest shaping a group attitude that will much more realistically account for hostility to the capitalist order than could the theory—itself a rationalization in the psychological sense—according to which the intellectual’s righteous indignation about the wrongs of capitalism simply represents the logical inference from outrageous facts … Moreover our theory also accounts for the fact that this hostility increases, instead of diminishing, with every achievement of capitalist evolution.
Back when the Occupy movement was in full swing, I commented here at Volokh that it represented the fragmentation of the New Class elites into upper and lower tiers. The upper tier, which included the bankers and those dealing directly with capital, did pretty well notwithstanding the financial crisis; though they do face a long run problem insofar as the “knowledge class” skills they brought to the global economy in the 1990s have long since spread throughout the world and become commodified, lowering their global rents. But the long run effects have been devastating on the lower tier of the New Class – public employees, the “helping” and therapeutic professions, those whose professions consisted essentially of mediating between upper tier New Class capitalists and the rest of the population, managing the rest of society while the globalized New Class capitalists outsourced themselves in the global economy.
As Schumpeter pointed out in 1942, a university education makes it psychologically much harder to consider manual trades, even if employment opportunities are greater there. It’s psychological as well as the material expense involved, particularly these days. I’d add another, as well, though: it’s not simply the college experience and the expectations it creates – it’s also the way in which the system pushes students to prepare to compete for college while still back in high school, with fewer students of the upper middle class, especially, working the jobs that they used to work, in fast food or retail or other things. The kind of work in high school that was ordinary and normal even for very smart, college and beyond-bound students, coming from the middle and even upper middle classes, is both less available and less respected – disrespected, even – by parents, by the college entrance system, by the students themselves. So much for the intrinsic dignity of labor.
The language with which the suggestion that a high school student actually work for pay is treated by parents of my professional upper middle class is striking, and frankly it always shocks me a little bit – although over the years I’ve heard it less and less, because it simply doesn’t occur to anyone. E.g., such work in high school would be an “inefficient use” of my child’s time. Any time spent working would be at the expense of grades or preparing for standardized tests – that’s my child’s real work. My child’s competitive advantage lies in getting into the best college possible, and it’s better to pay someone else to do that manual labor and have my child spend the time studying. I have no doubt this is true, where the incentives of the college competition system, and the extraordinary rewards of reaching the upper tier, the increasingly fraught life possibilities for those that don’t, and the still-rising cost of the bet (not investment, let’s be clear, but bet) that families and their children make by borrowing undischargeable debt paid over to the university system.
The pressures of the college entrance system, combined with an economic environment in which the middle class is disappearing into the dependency class below and those scrambling up either to stay in the shrinking ranks of the lower tier New Class professions or somehow rise into the diminished opportunities of the upper tier – all this contributes to a cultural and social loss of common experience among children of the broad middle class, regardless of where their lives and careers ultimately took them. But it makes it particularly hard for these children to consider labor outside of white collar work.
Our world is not 1942, of course. The problem today is not so much one of not going to post-secondary school. We should not let the pedagogic failure, greed, intellectual corruption, incompetence, pettiness, self-dealing, and self-servingly noble language of the universities distract from the fact that in our world, the manual trades that ought to be an important part of the middle class private sector are actually highly integrated with and dependent upon abstract and intellectual skills – skills that do benefit from post-secondary education in many ways. And there is – or at least, in a university system different from the one we have today – a genuine role for the humanities and non-technical, non-apparently-occupational disciplines, because there are general skills of communication in writing, thinking and analysis, that those disciplines can convey, apart from their own intellectual content. That the university system has turned its back on those skills in the general collapse of liberal arts education doesn’t make them less important – nor does it mean seeking some supposed golden age model of what liberal education used to be. The revitalization of liberal arts education will not be some return to a mythic past; neither will it look like today’s liberal arts and humanities education.
It’s a mistake to look at the failure of the university system today for the middle class and conclude that the answer is to encourage very many middle class high school students to skip it altogether. Obviously that is a more difficult decision today financially, as university administrators and professors have transferred future value from those students’ pockets to their (our) own, ramped up rent extraction on required credentials for today’s workplace, without actually offering much in the way of intellectual skills, and finally securitized it in the form of loans providing universities with cash today and indentured cash flows for the students, who bear all the risk that the credential will provide them with a return sufficient to service their debt. In 1942, there was a meaningful manual labor middle class that ranged from unionized factory work to tradespeople. The equivalent positions today, to the extent they exist, and the emerging new manual work, benefits from skills that even in a decent high school education would not be sufficient. But if we persist in the current system of disrespecting manual labor at a much earlier point in a young person’s life – essentially tell them that they are too good for it by telling them it would be an inefficient use of their time and then, worst of all, making that true in the social and economic incentives of the college admissions system – we find that this crucial middle, and middle class ground, of mixed manual and skilled analytic careers is lost to them.
As a society, we would do well to affirm the cultural and social dignity of labor, including manual labor, by making it easier for the children of the upper middle classes to undertake it, and have across the rest of their lives a certain solidarity, however tenuous, with people who flip burgers, park cars, work retail, mow lawns, load trucks, and lots of other things that used to be part of middle class growing up. Recall that Our emphasis on the most efficient use of an upper middle class student’s time produces increasingly specialized, and over specialized, hot house flowers, suited to the university. It is efficient, after all, only in the narrow sense of the incentives that the college competition creates.
Our little hot house flowers are characterized by a deep psychological inability to see themselves doing anything other than the things which their class specialization prepared them to do. They lack essential qualities of resilience in their lives, and yet the system into which we have thrust them penalizes them, potentially severely, for seeking the kinds of experience that produce individual resilience rather than over-specialization at too early an age. One of the pernicious effects is an ever-greater desperation (if not by you, then your parents, who have to manage the process and you, again to the detriment of resilience and self-sufficiency) to fit into the specialized niches for which these students have been only too efficiently prepared since childhood. Risk aversion and increasing scramble for the limited range of things for which you have been psychologically prepared to do, and an inability to do things for which you have been psychologically de-prepped. This is not a recipe for an efficient or just or, running to Schumpeter’s point about social class, stable social system.