If I were a carpenter, and you were a lady
Would you marry me anyway?
Would you have my baby?
Sung best by Johnny Cash and June Carter
James Howard Kunstler wrote somewhere that in the coming age, carpenters will be more valued than people who design video games (or words to that effect). Kunstler's observation worried me because I have no mechanical skills at all, although I am a pretty good gardener.
Kunstler is right, and the coming age is now. Coronavirus is transforming the American economy. Millions of jobs have been lost that won't come back. All of a sudden, it matters if a person has real skills. A carpenter is going to be more valued in the years ahead than a sociology professor.
Americans have indulged themselves in the acquisition of meaningless university degrees--hundreds of thousands of degrees, and they will soon learn that all the millions of hours spent in university classrooms won't help them feed themselves.
I should know. I have been a university professor for 25 years, and I sat on dozens of dissertation committees. I would be embarrassed to list the titles of some of the dissertations I approved. I remember one doctoral student at the University of Houston who wrote his thesis on what it felt like to be a graduate student. I feel sure he is a tenured professor at some obscure regional university.
During my years in the Alice and Wonderland world of higher education, I stumbled across several instances of plagiarism. No plagiarist I discovered was ever kicked out of graduate school. We treated plagiarism like a punctuation error--easily corrected.
All this foolishness was financed by the federal student-loan program, the Pell Grant program, and various forms of state and federal government support. And most of the people who acquired frothy university degrees got jobs--often soft-skill jobs in the public sector. But few people who collected these degrees learned how to make anything useful.
Of course, not all higher education is vacuous. Programs in engineering, the medical profession, law, and accounting all teach useful skills. And several of my colleagues in my own field, which is education, are excellent scholars and dedicated teachers. I cast no aspersions on their work. But in general, the fields of education, liberal arts, and social studies offer degrees that lack real substance.
As I write this, nearly 17 million Americans are out of work, and this is just the first wave of job losses. Before the end of this year, people in government and education are going to feel the cold breath of a new Depression. Experts reasonably predict that the unemployment rate in this country will reach 30 percent.
The world of higher education is in for a rude shock. Slovenly professors, who did very little work and made rare appearances on campus dressed in gym clothes, are going to lose their cushy sinecures. If they are smart, they will acquire a craft skill and retool themselves as carpenters, plumbers, electricians, or technical workers.
As the job market for college professors collapses--and it will collapse, few laid-off professors are going to find new positions in academia. So If they don't retool, they will be forced on the dole, subsisting on food stamps and living with someone who has a real job.
As for the people who took out student loans to get frivolous degrees, they are going to find it damned difficult to get a decent job and even more challenging to pay off their student debt. They, too, will need to master a useful skill if they aspire to own a home, get married, or have children.