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The Role of Academia

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9/20/2016 7:32:27 PM
Posted: 8 months ago
There is a general picture of the role that academia plays in society, one that portrays academia as an institution enhancing the critical thinking skills and knowledge of its students who in turn come away more productive and therefore more attractive to employers who, recognizing the intrinsic value of their educational training, place them in positions of greater responsibility and prestige. That's why, it is generally claimed, that going to college is so vitally important; if you don't go to college you will not have the skills to hold well paying and fulfilling jobs. I think this picture is true to some extent. Students who go to college read more, write more, and think more during their time in college than they would have otherwise no matter what degree they pursue and regardless of whatever (probably irrelevant) facts they're forced to learn, and in virtually every case they are smarter for having completed the course work needed to obtain their degree. But I think the higher education system provides another crucial service to society which is seldom acknowledged, because it would reflect badly on this "sacred" institution, namely that of intellectual sorting mechanism, and a lousy one at that. This alternative account is not mutually inconsistent with the traditional one; they may both be operative to some extent. Establishing the truth of the traditional account does not refute the alternative model, as many often try to do.

At one point in time only a small minority of the population went to college. Generally, they came from the upper classes and could lay legitimate claim to having received a good formal education. This fact implanted in the minds of the masses the idea of college as a place where smart people go to become idea whose grip on society has outlived the conditions that originally brought about its widespread acceptance. More and more, college seems to be a place where people meeting some minimum threshold of intelligence go to distinguish themselves from the not-intelligent-enough-to-graduate-even-with-massive-grade-inflation people, so that we have a vicious cycle in progress, where the imperative to get a degree feeds on itself to the point of absurdity. That is, as it becomes increasingly important to get a degree, those failing to do so are increasingly important to distinguish oneself from, thereby making it even more of an imperative to go to college, in which more are forced onto the academia path, and so on. Certain fields are exceptions to this rule, like the hard sciences, where graduating remains as hard as ever and where degrees still mean something.

In order to benefit most from this arrangement academia has been forced to dumb down the course work. If level of rigor remained where it used to be many people would not even attempt to go to college, knowing that they were not up for it, either intellectually or motivationally or both, or perhaps having been fooled into going, drop out well before academia had collected funds from them they deemed sufficient. Academia knows perfectly well the power they hold over students. People wishing to succeed usually find themselves forced into academia regardless of what career they plan on pursuing. In many cases it doesn't even matter what one majors in just so long as one has a degree in something. It can be as irrelevant to one's career as some exotic foreign language that never gets used, but since mastering a foreign language is intellectually demanding, it's still usefully indicative.

Unsurprisingly, tuition has skyrocketed over the period when these changes were starting to manifest themselves. Academia as a whole can charge pretty much whatever they want nowadays, and there will always be an endless stream of students eager to get into massive debt for the chance to be victims of their extortion. Because academia doesn't explicitly acknowledge this aspect of its role, instead maintaining the pretense that they exist solely to harness the intellectual potential of its students, the sorting process exhibits a tremendous amount of waste, and in fact often fails even to distinguish the intelligent from the non-intelligent, which is of prime importance in a society where intellectual ability varies so widely. Because employers are forbidden by law to require applicants to take any sort of intelligence test or skills test without going through massive legal hoops, most forget all that, and just stick to academia credentials, even when the holder of a degree is some athlete who graduated only by the grace of their ridiculously forgiving professors.

If true, this model implies that the current state of affairs is very far from ideal. And since academia has managed to convince the world that intelligence equates to academic credentials, it has a virtual stranglehold on all intellectual discussion. Such ideas as these are unlikely ever to arise in an academic setting no matter the evidence in favor of them, for reasons that should be clear.