Abbie Hoffman once said college was about credentials. You could learn anywhere, but only a college could give you a sheepskin (diploma). Further doubts about the unquestioned maxim of college absolute necessity are raised in a book from the 1960s, The Sheepskin Psychosis, by John Keats (New York: Dell Publishing, 1963, 1965)
In the 1960s, the U.S. Labor Department “first published the statistical fact that, on average, a college graduate would earn $100,000 more during his lifetime than a man who had only a high school diploma would earn.” They still keep throwing this “lifetime earning” statistic at us. But what if the statistic is backwards? What if the sample is skewed? The people who go to college and graduate are already a group of achievers. They likely would have earned more in their lives no matter if they had the sheepskin or not. You start with a group of achievers, give them a college diploma, and then say, “Ah hah. You see. They are achievers.” But it is not like in the Wizard of Oz where the scarecrow hasn’t a brain until the wizard gives him a Ph.D. The scarecrow already had a brain. He just thought he didn’t.
College is just a warehouse for youth labor. A surplus of labor meant you had to do something with these young people to keep them occupied. And so they were placed in holding facilities and given “Mickey Mouse” to keep them busy. There are marching bands and football games (bread and circuses) as part of the distractions. But, said one student quoted by Keats, “Any school that has fraternities, drum majorettes, and a marching band can’t be too great. You just know it’s going to be full of Mickey Mouse.” Keats comments that the student’s opinion reflects an incongruity between football frenzy and an intellectual atmosphere.
At this point I ought to say that, yes, I myself have a college degree. Thanks, no doubt, to my sheepskin, I have gone on to achieve being a well-known conspiracy theorist. (But maybe I would have achieved this summit without the college degree.)
Francis Bacon (who I am convinced headed a team which wrote the “Shakespeare” plays) quit Cambridge “when he discovered that what Cambridge thought was true, was probably false. In leaving, he seemed an intellectual heretic, for Cambridge was then regarded as the world’s leading center of scientific thought.” It often happens that especially bright people can’t stand college and can’t wait to get out. The warehouse (college) seems geared to busywork designed to help keep a clamp on youthful passion more than towards innovative thinking. As one Harvard professor quoted by Keats put it, “Whenever we find a spark of genius, we water it.” (If you water a spark, you extinguish it.)
In general, the warehouse for surplus labor (college) is Mickey Mouse in that “the whole system is really geared for the mediocre,” suggests Keats. Yes, the population is somewhat above-average to have gotten there, however the system amounts to a machine set up to process effectively the most number of people. That means, in the general population, the mediocre are most catered to. Hence the football and basketball coaches are paid far more than the professors.
Frightened fodder for this machine are the students, torn away from familiar environments and thrust into a world of in loco parentis where the “parents” are a huge system which grinds them into mass consumption articles suitable for employment. Loneliness abounds yet the fodder must pretend not since they are “up and comers” and sophisticated college persons now. In truth, however, a falsity and emptiness pervades college life, argues Keats.
But who really has the emotional problem, asks Keats, the society or its children? The society “may well be more disturbed than he.” Writing in the 1960s, Keats notes, “The U.S. Office of Education says that the unimaginative, mediocre student is much more likely to remain to be graduated.” These ones are able to dull the emotional inconsistencies more easily and thus adapt to the disturbed system. And the society has given its students band-aids, ready-to-wear answers which encase them in an armor to help ward off inner doubts.
“One thing is quite certain,” concludes Keats. “We have been leading our children’s lives for them to such an extent that their idea of the importance of winning college admission has become as psychotic as our own.”