A mentor once told me, “What we have in this country is not a system of education, but a system of certification. When you go to college, you’re not buying an education. You’re buying a transcript.”
His point was simple: the vast majority of students go to college not to enrich their minds, but to position themselves to get a good job. Having a degree from a prestigious university, with a high GPA, enhances those chances. Employers like seeing this because it’s evidence someone knows how to play the game, how to follow directions, how to deliver what authority figures want. That’s the certification they’re looking for.
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I read a fascinating story in the Chronicle of Higher Education, written by a man whose job is to write academic papers for other people. He says he’ll make $66,000 this year writing custom essays on a range of subjects.
He writes, “The story of how I got into this job may be instructive. It is mostly about the tremendous disappointment that awaited me in college.
“My distaste for the early hours and regimented nature of high school was tempered by the promise of the educational community ahead, with its free exchange of ideas and access to great minds. How dispiriting to find out that college was just another place where grades were grubbed, competition overshadowed personal growth, and the threat of failure was used to encourage learning.
“Although my university experience did not live up to its vaunted reputation, it did lead me to where I am today. I was raised in an upper-middle-class family, but I went to college in a poor neighborhood. I fit in really well: After paying my tuition, I didn’t have a cent to my name. I had nothing but a meal plan and my roommate’s computer. But I was determined to write for a living, and, moreover, to spend these extremely expensive years learning how to do so. When I completed my first novel, in the summer between sophomore and junior years, I contacted the English department about creating an independent study around editing and publishing it. I was received like a mental patient. I was told, ‘There’s nothing like that here.’ I was told that I could go back to my classes, sit in my lectures, and fill out Scantron tests until I graduated.”
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This is the predictable result of creating a learning environment based on grades rather than personal growth. This is what we get for substituting a system of certification for a system of education.
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