How Did We End Up Here?

By Matthew Lawler –

*Matthew is a senior at Concordia University Irvine, a Literature Major and a friend of The Jagged Word. After graduating, Matt plans to become a fire fighter.

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I’m sitting in the library of my University right now, finishing another mindless busy-work assignment. This has been a recurring theme for me, and judging by the conversations I’ve had with my classmates, it is the same for many of them as well. Moments like this make me question what I am doing here. How has our society gotten to the point where one must achieve at least a Bachelor’s degree to avoid being labeled an absolute failure and have any relevance in our economy and culture? It seems to me that a shocking number of us are in higher education for entirely the wrong reasons.

To understand this problem we face in modern society, we must first look back to see what started all of this. Universities first came into existence in the Middle Ages, but these were reserved for specialized attendees such as church scholars and clergy, as well as the aristocracy and royalty. Meanwhile, the common people had a clear path toward a life of fulfilling and skilled labor, a system in existence since the dawn of time. The sons would take up whatever their fathers taught them, do that job for life, and pass it on to their future children. Whether it was farming, blacksmithing, leather-working, book-binding, shoe-making, or whatever you can name, you just did what your father did, and people were happy. One professor I was a student under informed the class wistfully that in the time of the Anglo-Saxons, people finished a day’s work in about six hours maximum, doing fulfilling work with their hands, usually out of doors. After this, they spent the rest of the day playing, telling stories, and spending time with their families.

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The shift from this kind of lifestyle to what we have now can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution. Factories began to replace artisans, and corporations began replacing family businesses. People began working extremely long hours in factories of horrible conditions; never truly learning a skill or being able to see and be proud of the result of their labor. This was also the case in early corporations, made up of many members, like cogs in the machine. They would never really know what they were directly accomplishing and they would never get to be their own master of their own handiwork. Fast forward to modern day, and we can see the fruits of this shift. This iPhone I hold in my hands and the laptop I am typing on right now are made up of incredible technology that I can barely understand. The mass-produced technology proliferating our society that is a result of competitive capitalism and our industrial society has many benefits and upsides, but at what cost? Is it worth the cost of losing the kind of life the Anglo-Saxons got to experience? Something tells me suicide rates weren’t very high back then.

So then, you go through four years of grueling school, maybe more, so that you can receive a slip of paper that might grant you the special opportunity to possibly be considered to work for one of these corporations that are making our society a mass produced wonderland. Then you get to sit hunched over in front of a computer screen within a small, air-conditioned office or cubicle, working away the rest of your natural life doing meaningless tasks that you will never see the end result.

Why is it that our parents, and our grandparents, were able to achieve great things with no more than a high school degree, and with that land a decent job and live well for themselves?

Many people even with Bachelor’s degrees aren’t able to get a well paying job in today’s economy. If you only graduate high school, though, you’ll be able to choose between lifelessly flipping burgers at McDonald’s and lifelessly working a cold and impersonal assembly line among many other exciting career options for life. Unless there is a massive change in our economy, and by change I mean something on the level of the Great Depression, there’s not much that can be done to reverse this progression. All is not lost, however. There is still a lot of hope to be found in the field of blue-collar trades and trade schooling.

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This massive emphasis on four-year education and white-collar work has left many of these trade-based jobs in the dust, and lacking workers. Now that even people with fancy Bachelor’s degrees are having trouble getting hired at Starbucks, many are turning back to fields such as being an electrician, plumber, carpenter, lineman, or construction contractor. This kind of work is becoming higher-paid than it ever has been in the past due to demand, and it is a return to that fulfilling skilled labor that I keep bringing up throughout this post. University should truly be reserved for scholars, those who truly love academic knowledge and have a genuine desire to be there, or anyone who aspires to rise up through academia and become an expert in a certain field. Companies should also begin to pay less attention to a fairly meaningless degree and work more to discover what people’s talents, areas of expertise, and self-education consists of in the process of hiring new workers.

Just because I am against the current system of academics and society’s demand that all must attend, does not mean I am anti-knowledge. I love knowledge, and truly hope that everyone would learn to love knowledge and pursue it in a fashion applicable to their life. Even though I probably couldn’t tell you much of what I learned last semester or even last month, I can tell you all about the life of John Calvin, or how computer circuits work, or the ironclad ships of the 19th century. This is because true education comes from a place of love and inspiration; you only truly remember facts and gain knowledge when you seek them out for yourself.

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