Today's post will consider the network of public discourses that attach multiple, often contradicting expectations and desires to the college experience. I am particularly interested in the focus on the rising costs of higher education, unemployed graduates and the emphasis on job-specialized majors by both Republicans and Democrats alike as a solution to this ongoing "crisis" of higher education. These issues are addressed in the documentary The College Conspiracy, a film that highlights some very serious and pressing concerns about the realities of higher education today. And, while I do not agree with many of the film's underlying assumptions or its solutions to the matter, I do think it is a film worthy of discussion if only for the way that it reflects prevailing beliefs and anxieties about higher education.
Contemporary public discourse sees a college education as primarily (if not exclusively) a means of social mobility, but only if you are savvy enough to enroll in those key majors that "will make you the richest." The College Conspiracy draws our attention to the political and economic incentives that drive up the costs of college and the false promises of higher education even when you have the "right" major. The crux of this film's argument is that education from elementary school onward is about funneling students into costly colleges, and doing so by "brainwashing" students with "useless" information. These are claims that echo conservative attacks on the "ivory tower" for being elitist, clamping down on free speech, and indoctrinating our youth.
But even within academia, there is ambivalence as to whether we are training young professionals for the job market, or if we are doing something different. Many academics argue that a college education builds critical thinking skills and prepares students to be informed, reasoning citizens (despite some uncomfortable evidence to the contrary). At the same time this noble idea conflicts with the realities of public grade school, which does arguably train students to memorize and "regurgitate" material, just as the documentary asserts. It also conflicts with the view that a lot of our students walk into our classrooms with at the beginning of the semester: the expectation that a college class is a means to a job rather than an opportunity to learn for learning's sake. These contradicting set of expectations and desires collide in our college classrooms every day. Perhaps it's time for us to seriously revisit this question: what is college for and for whom?