When society has no class
A lot of young people — and a few of us not-so-young ones — soon will be donning strange-looking costumes for one of society’s most important rites of passage.
Yes, it’s commencement season — time once again to hear some quasi-celebrity drone on about how “commencement” means “beginning.”
In fact, in its Latin roots, it means to initiate forcefully. But why let a dead language kill a once-lively cliché?
Commencement celebrates graduation — the moving from one angle or level to the next — and does so by eventually (though seldom at the actual ceremony) awarding a diploma — a piece of paper that, in its Latin root, has been doubled-over to signify its official status as a state document, like something a government might give to one of its diplomats (or, perhaps, a note about puppy love passed between two members of a junior high class).
Fortunately, commencement, graduation, and diplomas mean a lot more than pedantic exercises in word derivation. They mean we’ve certified a gaggle of young people as ready to take on the next challenge, whatever it might be.
A better word might be a term normally applied to eighth-grade graduation — “promotion,” a movement forward.
As we celebrate students moving forward, it’s important to remind ourselves of one of the lessons of physics: Only in the weightless vacuum of space does momentum continue unchecked. Everywhere else, friction and gravity eventually slow it to a standstill.
The need for education never ends. Automation and information technology mean our economy depends on brains not brawn. Skills that earn an entry-level job today yield little more than under-employment tomorrow.
Education is a ticket good for admission only. It’s the additional education we obtain on the job or in yet more classrooms that keeps us moving forward. And when young people move forward, the whole community moves forward with them. If a community seriously wants to invest in economic development, education and training are where it must place its bets.
Which is why it makes so little sense that we, as a society, spend so much on education through 12th grade and so little thereafter.
All in all, Marion’s school district spends roughly $10 million in federal, state, and local taxpayer money each year. That’s roughly $20,000 a year per student.
Government picks up the tab for a while, but once students move forward, nearly all government support is cut off. The $20,000-a-year cost remains, but now parents and students have to go deeply into debt to pay colleges and universities, most of which are publicly owned, just like the schools that gave them a lower level of education for free.
Not everyone wants or needs college, of course. Many other training opportunities exist. But they, too, cost money, and those that don’t generally are worth exactly what you pay for them.
Nowadays, nearly all state colleges and universities receive only a small portion of their money from government. Much more comes from students, particularly undergraduates, as legislators continually cut state contributions to higher education.
Part of the problem is that many people, including a fair number of legislators, have become downright celebratory of the fact that they have no education or training. They view education as creating intellectuals who don’t know what it’s like to do an honest day’s work and have strange ideas that put them out of touch with the beliefs of common people.
To be sure, weirdo intellectuals exist and often flourish on college campuses. Even now, a handful of readers — if they have managed to make it this far — probably are sniping that it is a perfect example of someone acting “smart,” as if that were a bad thing.
Truth be known, students we will honor in coming days as valedictorians, salutatorians, and graduates with honors aren’t “brains” who just naturally get good grades. Most have worked very hard, just as athletes and performing artists do, to achieve at a high level. None of them have been indoctrinated in the dogmas that anti-intellectuals fight to preserve. In fact, they have as many different ideas about faith, politics, and human values as there are students being honored.
A society that provides disability pensions for addicts surely can invest a bit more in the hard workers who are studying, in college or workplace training programs, to improve their skills to improve society.
Anti-intellectuals seem worried that supporting higher education creates a system in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Reality is that education gives those who work hardest the greatest opportunity to help the rest of us.
But if higher education is available only to those who can afford what otherwise might be crushing debt, we will end up with exactly what the anti-intellectuals fear — campuses filled with affluent students majoring in keggers and partying.
Education is the great equalizer, and we as a society need to give it at least as much support and funding as we do more transitory ventures. When we start seeing photos of deans signing the best and brightest to scholastic letters of intent and make the playing field level for students of all means, we’ll have a real commencement to celebrate.
— ERIC MEYER
Last modified May 9, 2019