The Undergraduate Degree--A Bourgeois Cult Symbol


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Everyone has the right to go to college and get a good education. It's the key to success in the job market.

Not so fast.

If there's one thing job-hunting in this economy has taught me, it's that an undergraduate education is vastly overrated as far as success goes. Notwithstanding the specious right to go to college for free of which today's youth and leftist politicians often speak, college does not guarantee success in finding or keeping a job in this economy. It certainly did not help me and millions of other workers avoid layoffs last year. It means little to those who scan a ream of applications -- all with degrees listed -- and it certainly means nothing unique to harried recruiters at a crowded job fair.

Mind you, it isn't useless per se, but a cursory examination of just some of the great geniuses of history -- Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Leonardo da Vinci, the Aztec engineers who built the great city of Tenochtitlán in the middle of soggy lake Texcoco, the Wright brothers, the men who built the Pyramids -- all these people did not go to college as we know it. Certainly they studied hard and learnt their respective trades over years of time, but no overpriced, ivy covered campuses did they grace.

And of course we hear all the time about successful entrepreneurs who dropped out of college: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Russell Simmons (Def Jam Records), Jawed Karim (YouTube), Ralph Lauren, even the late Michael Jackson.

Yet we still hear the refrain:

Everyone has the right to go to college and get a good education. It's the key to success in the job market.

I concede that most of us aren't brilliant entrepreneurs, nor do most of us have a rich daddy who owns a local factory, and the system has seemingly been set up so that most of us must enter into the cut-throat, white-collar world in order to have a hope at being awarded a job with a living wage. That means earning the hallowed sheepskin. But does one really learn all the skills and knowledge needed to fully enter into an everyday professional setting?

The particular management, organizational and computer skills I use in my line of work were not bestowed upon me by a professor in a classroom. I certainly learned some interesting and enlightening things in the lecture halls, there's no denying that. But with the possible exception of my foreign language skills (though alimented by my own efforts anyway), most of the job skills I possess I either learned on the job or in my extracurricular activities. In order to do that, I had to go outside the classroom, outside the syllabi and recitations and seek out spaces where I could use and learn more.

Reading, reading some more, listening to a lecture, reading yet some more, writing a paper, and taking any number of guessing game multiple choice exams in order to regurgitate reams of information that you cram into your head exhibit your broad knowledge. Just study what is covered on the exam, and nothing more, and of course one often hears my favorite question: Are the final grades going to be curved? Then it's more reading. Little practical application or real-life settings can be found here. Surely there are exceptions, but this is the general pattern of what passes for education at American universities these days.

For what it's worth, one might be better off visiting a library and reading all the books in it or going to a museum or getting a private tutor if one really wants to pursue knowledge. Or at least pursue a vocational degree, where one will learn, really learn, a useful trade and skill. Instead, we have a generation of people with bachelors and masters degrees who work one or two jobs at McDonalds or Starbucks or toil at the behest of any number of faceless temp agencies just to pay the interest on their student loan debt -- debt with more zeros than any annual salary they can ever hope to see.

So we've seen that college doesn't necessarily prepare one for the real world, and we see that plenty of people who have smarts, drive and ambition have become successful without the hallowed sheepskin, so let's ask: What is it really good for, this thing to which we supposedly have a right?

What an undergraduate degree symbolizes nowadays is neither smarts nor expertise nor discipline nor rigorous intellect nor even adequate job, social, or financial planning skills, since these are not the aims of a modern-day university education. Rather, it is a way to weed out the cultured workers from the low-brow; the affluent from the less-affluent; the pacified from the rough-around-the-edges; the best and brightest from the dumb sheep; the ones who "get their hands dirty" with practical skills from those fully indoctrinated in squeaky-clean trivia (which is what most white-collar work is, anyway); the upper and middle classes from the lower classes. In short, its function is to help lock out the undesirable proles from the Inner Circle (be it higher education, government employ, or involvement with the cut-throat, white-collar world).

As far as job hunting goes, the hallowed liberal arts university degree is quite useful indeed for approaching the doors to prestige, if not power -- no, not opening them, just increasing the chances of being approved by the genteel gatekeepers and gaining an audience with the Emperor without having the guard dogs set upon you.

And before you say that it used to mean something a long time ago, save for watered-down curricula, keep in mind that in the past only the richest of the rich could go to university, and its role as a gateway to genteel nobility was even more bare-obvious than it is now. I think this will become more obvious as the world economy continues to deflate and people have to seek ever higher degrees and more debt just to get a secretarial job or (heaven forbid) mop floors in a Dunkin Donuts.

In our 21st century society populated by neutered-bourgeois, an undergraduate degree is good for one thing only--a status symbol for the affluent, upwardly mobile middle-class worker; an alluring icon of a bourgeois cult. Indeed, every family in this country has been duped into thinking that this is the only way one can become successful. We are bombarded with statistics showing that college graduates make more than non-graduates. After all, high school or college dropouts often end up flipping burgers and making lattes, right? Otherwise Uncle Sam lures them into the military to kill poor foreigners for the benefit of the ruling class, although with the wars in the Middle East going so badly, that might be a less appealing career path these days.

I do expect teachers or grad students or other educated professionals will sneer at my skepticism of the education system, and of the Holy Degree and its trappings; they will scold me, saying that I am foolish for denying the path to salvation via undergraduate education. Of course, they all have advanced degrees, have clawed their way to the top, have become the new gatekeepers, and (most critically) aren't on the unemployment lines, so they can afford to say such things.

Everyone has the right to go to college and get a good education. It's the key to success in the job market.

I would strongly recommend to anyone reading this who is of college-age to consider a vocational school or apprenticeship, where one can learn a useful trade that will guarantee a better salary. The way things are headed, the existing artificial white-collar service economy will begin to wither away, and less employment will be available to those with that hallowed liberal arts degree as we are forced to return to actual industry, production, trade, and thrift. Oh sure, there are still plenty of opportunities for that fancy-pants work we middle class denizens are taught to strive for. But do not expect a renaissance of financial prosperity in the future (i.e., get used to the term jobless recovery), nor should you expect a promise of a fully remunerative career (this graph from the Economic Policy Institute shows employers are forced to work people harder in the name of increasing productivity whilst wages stagnate due to inflation).

In other words, take the modern-day, bourgeois college degree-worshipping evangelist cult with a few grains of organic sea salt.

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Marcel Votlucka's picture
Columns on STR: 29

 Marcel Votlucka writes from Brooklyn NY.  His work focuses on the connections between psychology, culture, and anti-politics.  Visit his new website at