Commentary: Why is education system so skewed toward academia?


Populism – the belief in the power of regular people, and in their right to have control over government rather than a small group of political insiders or wealthy elite – is on the rise in America today. Support for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump is in part a result of this growing populist ethos. The reasons have been discussed ad infinitum in the media as many people, including members of the Republican Party, scratch their heads trying to understand how a man – Donald Trump – with neither the qualifications nor the temperament could become a nominee for president of the United States.

No one other than Hillary Clinton, as far as I know, has mentioned what is slowly becoming recognized in some areas as a deficit in America’s education system – the assumption that all high school graduates should go on to receive a four-year college diploma. In her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Clinton briefly mentioned, “… one of the best-kept secrets in America …” the community college system and technical schools that enable students to become proficient in a trade or profession that does not require a four-year degree.

It has only been since my generation that a four-year college degree and beyond was deemed the ultimate goal of students. The prosperity following World War II made it possible for the middle and lower classes to become upwardly mobile and to move into higher paying jobs and to send their children to college. It was a very, very good thing and this country profited mightily from it, but in more recent times it has also cost many people without college degrees a loss of status and economic security. Today it is difficult, if not impossible to find a good-paying job doing practically anything without that four-year degree regardless of one’s innate talents, skills and intelligence.

Some years ago my son was vetted over a period of months by a prominent printing company. He passed through a series of interviews by executives of increasing authority in the company, all of whom found him qualified for the job. He was ultimately turned down by the company’s department of Human Services based simply on the fact that he does not hold a four-year college degree. Their reasoning was that it would be unfair to applicants with that degree, but how was this fair to my son who had the talent and ability to perform the job?

So why is our education system so skewed toward academia? Could we not encourage young people with other talents to enroll in technical schools and community colleges where they can hone skills that will pay them a decent living? Why is it that in this country the mechanic, plumber, electrician, cook, waiter, house cleaner, carpenter, etc., without whom most of us could not survive, do not receive the respect they deserve simply because they lack a higher education? What of the knowledge and skills of the so-called “uneducated” that often are of a level of subtlety and degree of difficulty neither you nor I can imagine?

I believe that some of the anger, resentment and discontent we see in many supporters of Donald Trump can be credited to this emphasis on higher education and its attendant status and economic benefits to a degree that has undermined the ability of non-academics to achieve a higher level of economic security and status than they now enjoy. Aren’t we over-looking a large segment of society that in the past was part and parcel of what made America great in the first place?

How is it possible that a member of the wealthy elite who has consistently given a raw deal to the laborers and working-class people who have contributed to the rise of his empire, can gain so much traction from the very group of people he has in his personal and business life deemed “losers”? He has done it by manipulating their anger and discontent, by giving them someone to blame (immigrants, foreigners, the government, those of different faiths, etc.), and by promising the impossible.

Hillary Clinton’s platform is aimed at addressing the underlying causes of this discontent including the above disparity in our system of education. Rather than claiming that she alone can solve our problems and dividing us as a nation, she calls on us all to lend our talents to finding the solutions.

Maggie Maloney is a Strasburg resident.