By Patrick F. Cannon
I’m a graduate of Northwestern University, which is tied with Duke University at number 10 in one of the rankings of American colleges and Universities. When I started going to school there part-time in the Fall of 1956, I only knew that they had a well-established “Evening Divisions,” which was the only way I was going to be able to afford a college education. In today’s money, my salary as a clerk at the New York Central Railroad was equivalent to about $30,000 a year.
As I recall, a course worth two-semester hours of credit was $70. Since I could normally only take three course per semester, it took me exactly 8 years of nights and weekends to graduate. You have to add two more years on to that for military service (we still had a draft then). After those two years, the G.I. Bill paid for the rest of my education. I think I even got a book allowance. I checked my bookcases, and the only books from those years I still have are a French-language edition of Albert Camus’ The Stranger; James Joyce’s The Dubliners; and Bernard Berenson’s Italian Painters of the Renaissance.
I was that now dying breed, an English major. To refresh my memory, I recently ordered a transcript from Northwestern. I took 15 courses in my major; but was surprised to see that I took 16 in the History Department. As I recall, you were required to take basic writing and literature courses; a full year of American history; ditto a foreign language (French in my case); a full year of either science or math (I chose Biology); and something called “Logic: The Art of Thinking.” I don’t recall how many courses you had to take in your major, but I had more than enough.
Among my electives were five courses in the Art History Department, including a course in Chicago architecture taught by recognized expert Carl Condit, which led to my lifelong interest in architecture; and, after I retired, to seven books on Chicago architects and architecture. Other electives were courses in the Greek Myths; Existentialism; anthropology; advertising; and political science, including a full year course titled “A Cultural and Intellectual History of Russia.” As a result, nothing that happens in that country surprises me.
In those days, course registration was in person. You checked the catalog to see which courses you wanted to take, then tried to show up as early as you could. As I recall, the room was arranged by department. There would be a tab with the course name; behind it would be the number of cards equal to the number of places available for that course. If there were cards left, you snagged one, filled it out and handed it in. If no cards were left, tough luck. You just had to search for another course that had cards left. When I look at my transcript, I think I see some courses that fit that category.
In all the courses I took, I don’t see one on the ins and outs of custom and multi-wall bags, which I had to learn for my first job when I got out of the Army in the sales and marketing department of the Union Camp Corporation. I had to learn about bags on the job. And after more than 50 years, I could probably do a decent job of explaining the different types of bags and what they’re used for. Although I hadn’t yet graduated, the most important part of that job was being able to communicate clearly with both customers and our design and manufacturing staff. Learning about bags was the easiest part.
Later, I worked for an agency that managed and did public relations for smaller trade and professional associations. Among my clients were the Ground Water Council, the Metal Lath/Steel Framing Association and the Society for Management Information Systems. Needless to say, Northwestern didn’t have any courses directly related to these groups, but it did provide me with ability to learn, and to effectively communicate what I’d learned. Ditto with my final job, as head of public relations and communications with Lions Clubs International, the world’s largest service club organization.
I had what’s called a “liberal” education. These days, I’m told, students want their university education (which is generally overpriced) to have a specific point. They see no advantage in learning about Elizabethan poetry, since it’s hard to imagine monetizing Shakespeare’s sonnets. Who has the time to listen to Beethoven’s Ninth? And how could appreciating the paintings of Diego Velasquez possibly get them noticed at Goldman Sachs?
But almost every job or profession – with the exception of the sciences, engineering and medicine – requires mostly on-the-job education and training. No wonder the majority of graduates are unhappy about their educational experience, particularly since most have gone into debt, only to discover their education didn’t really prepare them for the real world. It’s true that a degree from an “elite” university (Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and, yes, even Northwestern) can get your foot in the door and maybe even more money. In the end, though, it’s how you perform that will predict your future success.
The young would also be wise to remember, as the Bible says, that man cannot live by bread alone. People like Shakespeare, Beethoven, Rembrandt and Jane Austen can teach us more about ourselves than “Principals of Investment Banking.”
Copyright 2023, Patrick F. Cannon
4 thoughts on “Wasted Education?”
Fifty plus years ago, unless you wanted to be an accountant or a dentist, college was expected to give you a general education, and you were encouraged to take courses that were totally unconnected to future employment, from Swahili to Anthropology. I had the luck of attending what today would be considered a classical high school that provided a great background in literature, languages, history, science and math. My college education was similar to yours, with more emphasis on languages but plenty of courses in English, plus history, philosophy, art and music history, sociology and economics. I remember constantly reading (as I had in high school) and writing essay after essay. It didn’t prepare me for dentistry or accounting, but it did give me flexibility in finding meaningful employment later on. From that point, you learned on the job.
The big difference today is cost. Even though tuition back then seemed like a lot of money (for me it was), it was peanuts compared to what students have to shell out now. No wonder students question the utility of the humanities, especially in the watered-down versions colleges have presented to make the courses more popular (rock music, film studies, comic books, and in their most contrived manifestations, politicized gender and ethnic studies). I understand you can now major in classical studies at Princeton without knowing Latin or Greek.
Whereas a college education used to be a special undertaking, it now is commonplace and expected, if you don’t want to become a hairdresser, construction worker, truck driver or store clerk. A doctorate is no big deal these days. Even Mrs Biden has one.
In Europe, a title or degree confers status, like doctor or professor and even professor-doctor! In the US, it’s one thing: money.
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My friend Ed Swanson started NU the same year I did, 1956, but went full time. He always had a job during the school year, and worked full time in the Summers for the Burlington Railroad loading dining cars. What happened to “working your way through college?”
I worked summers (stock clerk) and part-time (dishwasher) during the school year, but the tuition in New York State colleges was very reasonable (like $200-300 per semester) and free in the CUNY system where the standards ranked quite high. Alas, as always happens, the cost of these benefits soon outran revenues. Tuitions in the NY state system now are on a par with state schools in other states, and academic rankings are lower. Tuition has fed off increases in federal assistance programs. Now that Biden plans to forgive student debt, watch tuition skyrocket. I think a lot of students still work, but parents these days seem ready to foot the bill (mine didn’t).
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It could be wishful thinking, but the courts might just put a stop to Biden’s boondoggle.