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Fifty Years Ago, One Prescient Author Dared To Ask ‘Is College Worth it?’


The value of a college degree has been hotly debated for years. In this past election cycle, we saw Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders campaign on the idea that college should be free to all, advocating a new handout even to the rich kids whose parents can afford full tuition. Hillary Clinton had a less expansive version of the same idea, using a more costly take on the existing grant and loan system to achieve the same end: getting ever more kids into schools they could not otherwise afford.

Most recently, New York governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed an ambitious—and expensive—new plan to offer free tuition to middle and lower class students at state colleges. Few politicians—Marco Rubio is one notable exception—ever question the wisdom of that underlying goal, even as many citizens are starting to have doubts. Across the political spectrum, the received wisdom is the same as it has been for decades: that college education should be the choice of any young person with half a brain.

Fifty years ago, when far fewer students were enrolled in college, the consensus in favor of college education was the same, and author John Cresswell Keats was asking many of the same questions in an age that was, if anything, even less receptive to any contrary answers. But Keats was a contrarian—other books of his criticized suburbia and automobile culture at the height of their appeal—and in a 1965 book, The Sheepskin Psychosis, he questioned one of the prevailing ideas of elite opinion in the late 20th century: that college is beneficial for almost anyone.

Desire Beneath The Elms

It is striking how many of the issues Keats examines are almost unchanged today. Certainly, there are differences. Co-education was new and not particularly widespread. The military draft played at least some role in every young man’s thinking about college. Where Keats decried the strictness of grading curves, we are now plagued with grade inflation. And tuition costs, while not insubstantial, were not the stratospheric burden that they are for college students today.

But more striking are the similarities between that time and this one. We think of sex on campus as an issue that has changed drastically since the early ‘60s, but as Keats tells it, we are dancing around the same issues and emotions about interpersonal relationships that we were back then. And although the sex he discusses is less varied than that of today’s LGBT-friendly campus, the students’ thoughts on the matter sound far from antiquated. “If two people are in love,” he quotes one anonymous Smith girl as saying, “there is nothing wrong with their going to bed together, providing nobody gets hurt.” The same platitude could easily be uttered on that campus today (other than the insistence on using a bed).

That “nobody gets hurt” is an important qualifier. The consequences of sex are no different than they were at the dawn of civilization, even if we (and the students of the 1960s) have more ways of avoiding some of them. But even if a couple of young scholars are bright and prudent enough to prevent pregnancy and disease, the emotional results of attraction, consummation, and rejection are still likely to cause harm to the student who finds things not going the way she imagined.

The problem of kids getting into sexual relationships for which they are not emotionally prepared is not a new one, nor was it new in Keats’s day. As he wrote, “College deans may maintain from here to next Thursday morning that most undergraduates are too immature to fool around with sex, but the most casual glance at the history of human behavior, from Creation to date, indicates that late adolescents are going to fool around with it anyway.”

Keats was right that the problem was nothing new, but his era was the first in which parents, teachers, administrators, and psychologists largely gave up the struggle. The baby boom generation did not invent pre-marital sex, but their parents’ generation invented not trying to stop it.

What was the seed of a problem then is bearing fruit now, and like the medlar, it is rotten before it is ripe. The wave of sexual revolution that began even as Keats was writing has crested, and students on campus now are dealing with the aftereffects as it crashes to earth. As Heather MacDonald wrote for The Weekly Standard in 2014, “sexual liberation is having a nervous breakdown on college campuses.” In their eagerness to destroy the old norms, erstwhile sexual iconoclasts have found rediscovered reasons to build the strictures that once governed sexual contact.

Again, MacDonald writes, “It turns out that when you decouple the sex drive from modesty and prudence, it takes armies of elected officials, bureaucrats, and consultants to protect females from ‘undesirable’ behavior.” The 1965 sentiment that “nobody gets hurt” has, five decades later, been flipped on its head. In today’s neo-Victorian campus, everyone gets hurt.

A Matter Of Choice

Sexual customs aside, Keats asks the question that many underemployed and overindebted recent graduates ask themselves today: Should every high school graduate go to college? More so than modern observers, Keats questions the maturity and decision-making ability of recent high school graduates. When a child becomes an adult is an age-old question that can never be answered simply and universally.

In the 1960s, young men were being drafted at 18, were old enough to smoke and (in some states) drink at eighteen, and with the passage of the 25th Amendment in 1971 would soon be old enough to vote at 18. Why should they not decide to go to college at 18, as well? All of these choices, as with sex, may not be entered into prudently and wisely by every young man and woman, but should they be prevented even from making the choice?

Keats suggests doing exactly that. The colleges of the ‘60s were changing themselves from elite institutions for wealthy scholars into general admission academies designed to appeal to the largest possible demographic. Today, that transformation is effectively complete. And as they were in any age, many teenagers are ill-equipped to rationally assess the decision to go to college and to choose the right courses and major once they are there.

It is not that colleges offer insufficient choices to young scholars; the problem is the basic nature of a teenager. As Keats wrote, “[i]s not any eighteen-year-old freshman, no matter how bright, also a jumble of hopes, confusions, doubts, torments, dreams, and gaucheries, whirling around a storm center of incandescent sexuality?” Who in their right mind would ask someone like that to make a decision that will determine much of the rest of his life?

What is to be done, then, if the essential nature of college-aged kids is a whirlwind of insecurities? Keats proposes they wait. To reinforce his point, he notes the difference between people going straight to college from high school and those who served in the military first. The latter was an especially numerous group after the passage of the G.I. Bill in 1944, which provided tuition assistance for veterans. “Most colleges reported that veterans earned higher grade point averages than any previous students,” Keats wrote, “thus proving that a young man could leave formal education for as much as four years without losing his aptitude for learning.”

J.D. Vance made a similar point in his much talked-about 2016 memoir, Hillbilly Elegy. After high school, feeling ill-prepared for college, Vance enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. The experience was transformative for him. “From the first day,” he writes, “with that scary drill instructor and a piece of cake, until the last, when I grabbed my discharge papers and sped home, the Marine Corps taught me how to live like an adult.” For Vance, as for many kids with disorganized family upbringings, this training is essential to make sure the would-be student makes the right choices with his life, including with his expensive education.

But even for children from stable, well-to-do households there is little opportunity to learn to be an adult before leaving high school. Requiring children to learn that while living away from home for the first time and taking academically challenging courses is a lot to ask. It should not surprise us that so many drop out or take more than four years to finish school.

Even when they do complete their coursework on time, many will look back and see that the path they chose as underclassmen is already shaping up to be the wrong one. Not every high school graduate will be suited for the military or rich enough to travel the world during a “gap year,” but a year or two working at an ordinary job could have the same salutary effects on a young person’s maturity.

Some Reasonable Alternatives

With the experience of working and the distance of a few years, a prospective freshman might be better able to address the central question of Keats’s book: whether college is the right choice. In 1965, 50.6 percent of people who had recently graduated from high school enrolled in college. In 2015, that percentage had risen to 69.4 percent.

But it is not clear that there is any more introspection now than then. Expansion of wealth in America combined with the greater availability of student loans and grants have made it easier to pay for school, but rising tuitions have meant that the next couple decades of a graduate’s life involve replaying those loans. A useful degree may still pay for itself, but a useless one now comes at an even heavier price. The stakes have been raised.

The value placed on college is reinforced by the increasing number of jobs that require a bachelor’s degree—any bachelor’s degree—as a minimum condition of employment. The federal government is among the worst offenders in this regard. Many baby boomers started working for Uncle Sam out of high school, proved competent at their jobs, and earned promotions. As they retire, their replacements are required to have academic qualifications they never possessed, but are no more competent at that particular job than if they had come there out of high school.

Does an English degree qualify someone for a job at the Defense Department? Does a B.A. in history mean a 21-year-old is more fit for a job as a claims administrator or file clerk? Presumably they have more knowledge about certain subjects, but it is not clear that such knowledge makes them a better employee.

Keats characterized the diploma as glorified working papers, and the sentiment is even truer now than it was in 1965. He suggested that colleges should offer different degrees, separating those who want to qualify themselves for a job from those true scholars seeking deep knowledge of an academic subject. For the latter sort, college is essential. Their sort of education is more in line with a university’s original purpose. But for the former, for those who make up the vast majority of college students, Keats believed “it is difficult to say that, apart from bringing people together for the purposes of intellectual discourse, a college does anything else that is uniquely valuable.”

If John Cresswell Keats were alive today (he died in 2000), it is likely that he would be only more firm in his objections to broadening college attendance. With more schools offering more students more esoteric degrees and costing more money every year, the academy has doubled down on the problems of Keats’s time. As more people get degrees, an opponent of that system is seen as a crank. The once bizarre idea of granting an 18-year-old a six-figure unsecured loan to pursue a degree that does not even guarantee him employment now has so become commonplace that to question it marks one as anti-intellectual and contrarian.

Keats’s book reminds us that there must be a place for contrariness. His questions are the questions any teenager—or parent of a teenager—should ask before embarking on the quest for an expensive diploma. The student loan bubble will someday burst. When it does, it will bring sweeping change to a system that has been in need of it for fifty years. In searching for ideas about making the education work for students, The Sheepskin Psychosis is a good place to start.