We often hear calls for more black people to get college degrees, out of an assumption that it is becoming all but impossible to enjoy a middle-class existence without a B.A. This counsel is not as wise as it sounds.
The idea of four years of college as a "normal" experience in America took hold only after the G.I. Bill paid for millions of veterans to get bachelor's degrees who would not have been able to otherwise. Today, the idea of college as a rite of passage seems ordinary only because it's all we've known—kind of like broccoli, which was not common on American tables until the 1940s. Before the G.I. Bill, one did not refer to someone as "not having gone to college"—because most people did not.
Yet the fact remains that as the college degree became "normal," more jobs started requiring them out of a sense that a B.A. was an imprimatur of basic competence, leading even more people to go to college. The result of all this is a massive waste of resources, both monetary and personal.
When I attended Rutgers in the early 1980s, it seemed that every third undergraduate, many of them first-generation college students, was majoring in economics. Their interest was less in Keynesian theory than in preparing for a job in finance. Students actually interested in learning for its own sake were distinctly thin on the ground. Not just some, but most of the undergraduates at Rutgers then would have done themselves and the world quite well by being out in the real world working, instead of doing what was largely spinning their wheels for four years in college.
The fact is that most people, anywhere in the world, are not into books for books' sake. There is nothing wrong with that—life is about much, much more than the printed page. But this means that a situation where millions of people slog through dozens of courses over four years—almost none of which they will remember or use later—is not useful; it is merely a historical accident.
Of course, people urging blacks to go to college in greater numbers are not thinking about courses on Shakespeare, but rather the "piece of paper" supposedly crucial to living a decent life. Is it really necessary to sentence people to four long years of jumping through hoops to be able to afford a house?
Not really. Conventional wisdom has it that the main problem for people who don't go to college is that the factory jobs parents and grandparents worked are no longer available. But there are a great many other jobs that don't require college.
Over the next several years, three-quarters of the new jobs in America will not require a college degree and will pay nicely, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Sound technicians, electronics repairmen, mechanics and building inspectors do not need college degrees. What is inherently wrong with these jobs? Perhaps we are better served if we stop pushing the notion that college is for everyone and start making sure that those young people who choose not to go to college (or who cannot get into college) build the skills that can help them land some of these potentially well-paid jobs that do not require a college degree.
Sure, some jobs like this require some training. Ads for vocational schools and community colleges still plaster public transportation in many cities. But it is no longer popular to promote these options. The notion that everyone should aspire to college is as much about American ideals as about race. As one remedial writing professor puts it in the latest Atlantic, "Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines."
Yet there is nothing ignoble about someone finishing high school, spending a year learning how to fix heaters and air conditioners, and going off to ply his trade and make a thoroughly decent living. Or, given the shortage of computer tech workers in America compared to countries like India, surely black workers ought to see this as a job opportunity just as many immigrants do, and one that does not necessarily require a four-year college degree.
Now, if we could wave a magic wand, students who opted out of college would have better educations than they do now. Leon Botstein, president of Bard College and my alma mater Simon's Rock College, suggests that all Americans be educated with a content-rich program, stressing critical thinking and ending at 10th grade. In much less time than it takes now, students could be given a substantial but no-nonsense education tooled to preparing them to be productive citizens.
This can be done without the pretense that any but a few Americans need to be plied with "book learning" over several more years beyond this basic toolkit. College education would be one of many choices one might make, like graduate study is today. Vocational training, meanwhile, would not merely be a pathway to cutting squid on an assembly line, but to careers in art, music or sports.
I realize that I'm in the minority on that vision. However, if the only reason a person is going to college is to be able to earn a decent living wage, in my opinion it is time we went back to what was normal in our grandparents' day and stop thinking of vocational training as low-rent. In fact, a valuable modern civil rights plank would be to encourage a trend now just starting in some cities: the reinstatement of vocational training in public school systems.
John McWhorter, a culture and politics Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is a columnist for the New York Sun and author of "Losing the Race."
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.