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11 September 2009
A college diploma as cultural artifact

Once upon a time, before the GI Bill, college was for rich white men, with occasional exceptions. But since the mid 1940s, college enrollment has been steady rising. According to the US Department of Labor, nearly 70 percent of last year’s high school graduates were in college last fall. On the other hand, if recent patterns persist, half of those students will drop out—which may account for the proliferation of advertisements for college programs designed for adults who started college but left before completing their degrees. And with all this encouragement to attend college, it’s still true that only just over one-quarter of American adults have earned a bachelor’s degree. Which means that three-quarters have to turn past the vast majority of job descriptions, which require a bachelor’s degree as a matter of course.

For all the social and economic pressure to finish college, you can detect ambivalence among Americans about its value. When I was in high school, the Indigo Girls’ hit “Closer to Fine” was in everyone’s tape deck. “I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind, got my paper, and I was free,” they sang. More recently, Matthew Crawford—who is one of the 3% of Americans with a doctoral degree, in philosophy from the University of Chicago no less—has made quite a splash with a book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, that argues forcefully for the dignity of work that requires little or no classroom education. What does a college diploma make possible and impossible? What does a college degree (or lack thereof) make of the world?

—Christy Tennant

1. What does a college diploma assume about the way the world is?

Reading Shop Class as Soulcraft made me want to go be a mechanic and ditch my worthess 4 year degree. It assumes we learn something of great value in school that is needed to navigate in the working world. Sometimes this is true, mostly though it is not.

Carl Holmes

I don’t know about “the world,” but the value of a college diploma in the West seems reflective of the high value placed on “knowledge” and “knowing.”  I see this cultural value as both a positive and a negative.  “Knowing” what you can is critically important when choosing to embark on new endeavors - work to make your company, life, neighborhood, nation, etc - “better.”  However, if “knowing” (much like many would accuse the traditional evangelical church) is simply an end in itself, not pursued for greater purpose or work, than it is a vain pursuit.


—Dan Jones

Ideas must have credentials to be valid.  (I’m not sold on the idea: I get frustrated when an excellent idea is rejected out of hand when presented by my friends, but magically acclaimed as brilliant when I attach my resume to it on their behalf.)

“The idea of Good Work is not quite extinct among us, though it is not, I fear, especially characteristic of religious people. I have found it among cabinetmakers, cobblers, and sailors. It is no use at all trying to impress sailors with a new liner because she is the biggest or costliest ship afloat. They look for what they call her ‘lines’: they predict how she will behave in a heavy sea. Artists also talk of Good Work; but decreasingly. They begin to prefer words like ‘significant,’ ‘important’, ‘contemporary,’ or ‘daring.’ These are not, to my mind, good symptoms.”


For many who do not have it, a college diploma assumes an “advantage,” of some kind. My “bigmomma” ( African American, southern term of endearment for grandmother) used to always tell me, “boy, go get yo digri!” Bigmomma projected all the good, that she thought she was not, onto a college degree. For her, a degree made one smarter, more attractive, more respected, and conversely anyone without it had no right to be any of these things.  Sadly, this false idea is a major impetus for many to go to college only to realize, after they get their diploma, that a diploma is only as good as the person who holds it!

Byron Davis
2. What does a college diploma assume about the way the world should be?

that knowledge/know-how/intellect/thinking can be taught, learned, acquired

that the trained, disciplined mind has advantages in human society

—Margaret Lee Chen
3. What does a college diploma make possible?
4. What does a college diploma make impossible (or at least a lot more difficult)?
5. What new culture is created in response?