The title is adapted from a work of Chomsky in a painfully tounge-in-cheek chagrin.

theweekmagazine: College is One of America’s Worst Investments

At least that’s what a new study suggests. The study found that nearly half of students make “no significant gains in learning” in their first two years on campus, and that they spend 50 percent less time studying than their 1970s and 1980s counterparts.

This is “depressing,” but hardly “shocking,” says Matt Kiebus in Death + Taxes. Anyone who has spent time on a college campus in recent years knows that many young people “aren’t learning anything more than how to tap a keg and master the midday nap.” The “most hilarious and sadly accurate” finding was that the 3,000 students surveyed spent 75 percent of their time socializing and sleeping, and just 16 percent of it studying or attending class.

More opinion from The Economist and Washington Post here.

I find this very interesting for several reasons – it’s one thing if a student doesn’t apply oneself to the studies to which they committed, but college in the States has a role as a career factory which we expect to qualify us for a job, ensuring at least a mediocre (but comfortable) life in the middle class. That’s why the most popular bachelor’s degrees last year were very practical programs, from business administration to accounting and so on (with odd exceptions in psychology and education). But still, the role of the university as a career factory needs to be addressed –

Education as an investment is always difficult to predict returns on. What is the practical, monetary worth of studying any humanity, social or soft science that doesn’t qualify you for a privileged career where you can make a positive return on those tuition costs? Very little. And if that’s how we decide to live our lives, then very quickly a great many studies with abstract value in our society will become pointless – no more sociologists, no more philosophers, no more painters, no more musicians, and so on and so forth. Certainly, journalism will cease to exist, and political scientists, and theatre and dance majors, and people in media studies for sure. Colleges of Arts, liberal arts degrees, and many public affairs universities will go under very fast.

Now there are several ways to look at this; firstly, the actuarial means, which I hope I’ve already demonstrated the absurdity of. If not, I would like to suggest that the intellectual, in all their various forms and guises, has an important role in any society to both critique and refine various social institutions and norms that the majority either take for granted or lack the means to address. I’ve written about that before.

Second, the practicalist means. This has two flavors; one, the radical way of thinking that such humanities and other intelligentsia roles are merely the bourgeois trappings of first-world luxury. This is the same sort of thinking that says developing nations should be allowed to pump as many chlorofluorocarbons and carbon dioxide into the air as they like because environmental regulations only favor the West. Two, the capitalist/industrialist”We need workers and scientists to make discoveries and people to get about the business of life (business) and getting things done” type of thought. It’s really the same coin with each head spewing the same nonsense. If the product of society is only labor with no ability to examine and refine quality of life, then all work is a hollow endeavor. That’s what all those other degrees are for – not just to add color to our world, but to create definition and meaningful impetus for social evolution.

Now we’re back to the original point – college students are not applying themselves. And I think there are several good reasons for that – alienation and commodity fetishism, the typical gamut of ideas about materialistic, superficial capitalistic culture, the declining empathy among young adults and existential slumber of today. But I think the best reason is the way we approach university -as a factory machine, especially as a capitalistic society in the middle of a recession, where jobs are no longer guaranteed just because of your degree, regardless of where it came from.

The alternative is clear though; rather than treat the university like a candy dispenser that’s momentarily broken, and pouting by drowning our sorrows in booze, we can return to the original function and purpose of the institution – the self-betterment of our understanding, the broadening of our horizons, the pursuit of studies without that actuarial return, in the knowledge that for the inventive and original, there is always success worth chasing, less tangible than an inflated bonus, but more rewarding than a stock option.