Thursday, September 2, 2010

Yale professor offers advice for college-bound kids

Yale professor Walter Russell Mead posted a story on his American Interest blog painting a picture of our children's future and offering advice for parents as we guide them through life and particularly college. It's a long read but powerful and thought-provoking:

The anxious emails from students are hitting my in-boxes once again: What time are office hours? Are places in the seminar still available? Where can they get advance copies of the syllabus?

I don’t have answers to these questions yet; by this time next week I will.

Another school year is ready to begin, and for the first time in decades I will be teaching full-time.

Unfortunately, I’m returning to a profession in crisis. Over at Instapundit, Glenn Reynolds has been blogging up a storm over what he calls the ‘bubble‘ in higher education. Parents and students are shoveling more and more cash into degrees that, Glenn and many of those he links to warn, are not likely to pay off.

They are, unfortunately, right. The bubble analogy is dead-on for some parts of the educational world. In an age of outsourcing and technological change, a law degree (even from a ‘name’ school) is no longer going to be the kind of ticket to affluence that it once was.

More generally, the upper middle class benefited over the last generation from a rising difference between the living standards of professional and blue collar American workers. This is likely to change; from civil service jobs in government to university professors, lawyers, health care personnel, middle and upper middle management in the private sector, the upper-middle class is going to face a much harsher environment going forward. Automation, outsourcing and unremitting pressures to control costs are going to squeeze upper middle class incomes. What blue collar workers faced in the last thirty years is coming to the white collar workforce now.

Yet as their financial prospects darken, students’ educational costs are exploding. Like the health care system, the educational system is being overwhelmed by rising costs and rising demand. And as misguided government policies contributed to the real estate bubble by artificially inflating demand, government programs are burdening students with unpayable loans and contributing to relentless and unsustainable inflation in school costs.

And so, dear students, welcome back! Your generation is going to have dig its own way out of the hole my generation has dug for you (thanks for the Medicare, kids, and sorry about the deficit!), but here are a few tips that may help you get the best out of your college years.

1. The real world does not work like school.

Life in school is life in bureaucracy. You follow the rules, do what you are told, and rewards follow.

The real world was never very much like that, but the parts of the real world that look most like school (like for example law firms, universities and government and private sector bureaucracies) have their heads on the chopping block. By the time today’s students are in their forties (and that is MUCH closer than you think, kids), most of those organizations are going to morph into something very different. Or they will die.

Inmates who spend a long time in prison become institutionalized; they adapt so well to the conditions of prison that they can no longer function in the free world. Something similar can happen to students. From age six or even younger, students are immersed in a predictable world that runs by the rules. Then you get out of school — and expect that this pattern will continue. If you go to a good law school and do well, you will become an associate at a successful firm. Do your job well, work hard, obey the rules and wash behind your ears and in due time you will make partner.

That’s the old system; the new one won’t work that way. Creativity, integrity and entrepreneurial initiative will pay off; following the old rules and hoping for the old rewards is a road to frustration. You have to fight the tendency of the educational system to turn you into a timeserving baby bureaucrat, following the rules and waiting for the inevitable promotion.

As you go through college, think about ways you can fight the pressures of institutionalization. Work or volunteer — not just for money, but to keep your hand in the real world. Live off campus. Start a business. Shake things up.

Read the full post


  1. Fantastic article and advice - for college students and all of us! I just sent it to my nephew who started college this fall.

  2. Without the people who follow the rules as worker bees, who are the entrepreneurs going to hire?

  3. They're not hiring Americans if they can help it -- Americans are too badly educated to even follow the rules, let alone reinvent them.