The mortar-board barrier
Every year or so a new study, learned treatise or book comes out which says that we in the United States overdo the college thing; that we are turning out young people with bachelor’s degrees for jobs that don’t require them or that are so poorly paid the luckless worker can’t pay off his or her college loans.
Yet the pressure to go to college continues. Parents panic that they won’t save enough money and high school kids worry that they’ll be judged by which college accepts them.
There are only two classes of students who don’t worry: those with athletic prowess and those who are so bright that they have their pick of colleges.
In his book “David and Goliath,” Malcolm Gladwell makes the case against the pressure for a super school.
He tells the story of a gifted, young African-American woman with clear aptitude for science and math. She makes it into Brown, an Ivy League university, and flounders. With the cultural differences and the preponderance of other brainy students, this star student is soon lost. She ends up switching from science to a less-demanding liberal arts major.
Top-tier universities like Harvard, Yale, Stanford and MIT have their own punishments for their graduates. It is a sad syndrome: I went to Harvard (or one of the others), but I didn’t do well in my career.
I’ve seen many carry this burden throughout their lives. As Orson Welles said, in an entirely different context, he had started at the top with early success and had nowhere to go.
But no punishment meted out by the vagaries of talent and chance compares to the lifelong punishment that a majority of our citizens suffer for not going to college at all. More than 60 percent of us don’t make it to either a two- or four-year college.
Although they are a majority, they are treated as second-class, damaged, contaminated, inferior and deserving only of a kind of paternalism, as they paint houses, repair automobiles, bake bread, stock shelves and deliver parcels. No longer can some of them hope to be lifted into the middle class by union membership. College mania keeps them down.
They aren’t bumping up against the color bar or the glass ceiling, but they are victims of something as damaging: the mortarboard barrier. Go no farther, you have no college degree.
I know about the mortarboard barrier: I bumped up against it when I came to the United States 50 years ago.
Because I’d left school at 16, I had a jump start in British journalism. When I got to the United States, I thought the fact that I’d been a scriptwriter at the BBC and that I’d been a junior executive on a major newspaper might qualify me for an interview or two. The personnel departments at all three TV networks told me I couldn’t be considered because of a lack of college education. At The New York Times I was told that without a college degree, I couldn’t be considered as a writer. But as I was leaving, the interviewer actually offered me a job as a copy editor.
This reminds me of what I experienced subsequently, when I was flying small airplanes. The most gifted pilot I’ve ever known — and who saved my life a couple of times in bad weather — hadn’t finished college and was repeatedly turned down for an airline job as a result.
Then, there was the sad case of the cadaver pilot. There is a cottage industry in flying cadavers, usually through the night, from the place of death to the place of burial. I ran into one such cadaver pilot in the early hours of the morning in Missouri, as he was about to take off into bad weather with his silent passenger — there to remind him of his mortality and danger of flying an old airplane (a Beech 18 with radial engines).
Like all pilots, he loved flying, but had given up hope of moving up in aviation because hadn’t been to college. Unwisely, he had fallen in love with aviation too young. Just like The New York Times that wouldn’t allow a non-college-educated person to try writing for their pages, but would allow that same person to edit its writers, the irony is present in aviation.
While airlines and air freight companies insist on a college education, no matter what the proven skill or the number of hours the candidate has flown, air traffic controllers are mostly just high school graduates. College is not a requirement.
The college, non-college divide is pernicious and damaging. It is another front in the class war.
Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS.