Higher Education, Un(der)employment, and Dissatisfaction

Some thoughts from the great economist Joseph Schumpeter, writing in 1942:

The man who has gone through a college or university easily becomes psychically unemployable in manual occupations without necessarily acquiring employability in, say, professional work. His failure to do so may be due either to lack of natural ability—perfectly compatible with passing academic tests—or to inadequate teaching; and both cases will . . . occur more frequently as ever larger numbers are drafted into higher education and as the required amount of teaching increases irrespective of how many teachers and scholars nature chooses to turn out.

The results of neglecting this and of acting on the theory that schools, colleges and universities are just a matter of money, are too obvious to insist upon. Cases in which among a dozen applicants for a job, all formally qualified, there is not one who can fill it satisfactorily, are known to everyone who has anything to do with appointments . . .

All those who are unemployed or unsatisfactorily employed or unemployable drift into the vocations in which standards are least definite or in which aptitudes and acquirements of a different order count. They swell the host of intellectuals in the strict sense of the term whose numbers hence increase disproportionately. They enter it in a thoroughly discontented frame of mind. Discontent breeds resentment. And it often rationalizes itself into that social criticism which as we have seen before is in any case the intellectual spectator’s typical attitude toward men, classes and institutions especially in a rationalist and utilitarian civilization.

Well, here we have numbers; a well-defined group situation of proletarian hue; and a group interest shaping a group attitude that will much more realistically account for hostility to the capitalist order than could the theory—itself a rationalization in the psychological sense—according to which the intellectual’s righteous indignation about the wrongs of capitalism simply represents the logical inference from outrageous facts. . . . Moreover our theory also accounts for the fact that this hostility increases, instead of diminishing, with every achievement of capitalist evolution.

via the WSJ

Reminds me of Francis Bacon’s assertion…way back in the late 1500s!…that one cause of sedition and mutiny in any polity is “breeding more scholars than preferment can take off.”

See also Theodore Dalrymple

16 thoughts on “Higher Education, Un(der)employment, and Dissatisfaction”

  1. V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River depicts this process in an African country immediately after the colonial power bugged out. When I was reading the novel I immediately thought of the Occupy kids I talked to last year when that was all just getting started. They were bewildered about how unqualified they were for anything, and literally had no idea why.

    Schumpeter is under-appreciated.

  2. Schumpter was writing at a time when 10% of the population went to college. That began to change after WWII a few years later. Before WWII, college students were either wealthy or very intelligent and motivated. The world has changed an not for the better. Now 50% of the population starts college. As we should expect, only about three fifths of them get a degree. The rest wind up with non-dischargeable student debt.

    I have been reading about attempts to transplant the German apprenticeship system to the US. It sounds like a great thing to me. Last weekend I was at a wedding in Charlotte NC, I talked to an engineer who works at the NC plant of a German manufacturer, that had set up such a program. He was very enthusiastic about it, and said he would hope that at least one of his grandchildren would take advantage of the opportunity.

  3. Regarding apprenticeship as a source of technical education, the German system grew out of a history of centuries of trade guilds. Our labor unions (as most unions have become) are based on restricting entry in order to keep wages higher than a competitive market would. Companies would have an incentive to fund apprenticeship programs to train entry level employees on the job if their investment in this human capital would generate an adequate return. The problem is that employees are likely to leverage their newly gained skills and experience by moving to another firm that did not make the investment. Perhaps a solution is to be found in employment contracts requiring the employee to remain with the investing company for a fixed length of time sufficient to make the investment pay off.

    In the military, each professional development school carries with it an obligation to serve a given number of years upon completition of the course. A similar system, possibly coupled with a contract buy out option would incentivize such an employer apprenticeship system. Since investment in physical and human capital are complimentary, they should be treated similarly for tax purposes. Just a thought.

    One more issue to consider is how to compensate for the 4,5 or 6 years of undergrad partying that the apprentices would be forgoing to get actual work place skills while earning their keep.


  4. There are a few union sponsored apprenticeships. My nephew went to Northern Illinois U but had mediocre grades and his parents could not afford to fund mediocrity. He joined the Marines, served four years, came back and graduated from Northern IL, ten did a four year apprenticeship with the union of elevator installers and repairmen. I don’t recall the union’s actual name. He is now working for an elevator company and doing well.

    His only problem is that he doesn’t like Chicago weather and would like to move to a warm state like Arizona. I told him he picked the wrong field for that desire. No elevators in Arizona; or at least very few.

    When I applied for a surgical residency, only one place actually asked me if I worked with tools or played sports. The rest seemed uninterested in manual skills. I have seen some of the results.

  5. The Schumpeter quote reminds me of a pithy quote about prestige, preening and turf-warfare in Academia — goes something like “the infighting is so vicious because the stakes are so small”.

    I can’t remember who said that.

    But the mindset that breeds the resentment Schumpeter describes can make an academic department an unpleasant work environment – or so my friends in the Academy tell me.

  6. “the infighting is so vicious because the stakes are so small”…a quote that is often cited, but is it really true? On the level of the individual academic who doesn’t yet have tenure, the stakes would seem to be pretty high…one the one hand, a well-paid tenured professorship with great benefits and a lot of freedom to direct one’s own research, on the other, a starvation-level adjunct position with no job security and minimal benefits.

    Once an individual achieves tenure, the stakes may seem smaller, but still, a highly-regarded and well-published professor may have a lot of opportunity for lucrative consulting contracts, etc…in addition to the personal satisfaction of being well-regarded in one’s field, which is not to be disregarded.

  7. Less remarked (it seems to me) is that many of the academics in even the best universities are not actually intellectuals at all. Their sense of curiosity gets exhausted at the boundary of knowledge likely to be relevant to their research grant applications.

  8. A mitigating factor against Schumpeter’s description of the quality of job market candidates is the fact employment patterns have changed since the 1940s. Some ways for the worse as we surely don’t need any more lawyers however there are many positions that fall between professional and manual/skilled. So I would agree that colleges and universities produce too many graduate unemployable in the professional fields, but there are great many jobs that take some level of intellectual ability. I’m not going on a limb and so how much though……

    “Dearieme Says:
    October 30th, 2012 at 6:53 pm
    Less remarked (it seems to me) is that many of the academics in even the best universities are not actually intellectuals at all. Their sense of curiosity gets exhausted at the boundary of knowledge likely to be relevant to their research grant applications.”

    Or when they get tenure. However, I don’t think curiosity and research go hand in hand in academia necessarily. There are strong incentives and plenty of other reasons to publish research as Dearieme and David suggest.

    My neighbor just opened his own machine shop. Being a small business owner is the dream for many American. My hunch is that it would be much easier for many people to be a business owner by learning a trade or skill and turning that into an opportunity than getting a mediocre degree and working for faceless corporation.

  9. I suspect most folks now see the value of attaining a degree in it’s (assumed) role as a key, a ticket, to a better job and more affluent lifestyle. The learning, the development and improvement of character and intellect (in short the *education* itself) is, I suppose, not an end goal in itself. Since the *education* isn’t valued for itself graduates may feel cheated when having trouble finding work. Educators, part of the greater social group, share similar values and may have become less rigorous teachers because “character/intellect business”, not being seen as the goal, is not valued (as much as it once was).

  10. Crains Chicago Business just had a series of articles about attempts to create a serious vocational training infrastructure in Chicago and the local burbs. (Sorry, these appear to be behind a registration wall, but at least the first few articles are free upon registration.)

    Last week’s article (http://tinyurl.com/9p8bupy) was about how City Colleges – which has an abysmal graduation rate – is attempting to reinvent the curriculum in conjunction with employers.

    (You’ll note that the new City Colleges administration pressing for these changes – like everything else in this tragicomic kleptocracy of a city – appears loaded with self-dealing and patronage. However, it appears that this band of thieves at least is trying to produce something of societal value in return for their skim from the till.)

    This week’s issue had a number of articles, focusing more on the employers’ outreach to schools to develop programs:


    I think there is a growing realization that the higher education industry is not working for a majority of its customers, and its customers (both students and their future employers) are devising a workaround in response.

  11. When I applied for a surgical residency, only one place actually asked me if I worked with tools or played sports. The rest seemed uninterested in manual skills. I have seen some of the results.

    This seems to be a weakness of our culture. Manual skills are derided as “working with your hands”, i.e., low-skilled manual labor or hobbyist puttering. A broader view sees such talents as extremely valuable in engineering, design, manufacturing, medicine, etc., and that there are huge differences between individuals in the degrees to which they possess such abilities. We have been going in the direction as a society of over rewarding individuals who are verbally talented, perhaps at the expense of discouraging people who could do great things in non-verbal areas from developing their strengths.

  12. “This seems to be a weakness of our culture. Manual skills are derided as “working with your hands”, i.e., low-skilled manual labor or hobbyist puttering.”

    I think this is very true. When I went to the Mass General as a fourth year student, I wanted to go there so they would know me when I applied for surgical training. At the time, the chief of surgery was a very nice man and a pioneer in transplantation, which was a very big deal then. He was no surgeon and everybody knew it but he was still chair. It was a poorly kept secret who the good technical surgeons were and who the scientists who were weak surgeons were.

    There is a funny story about Alfred Blalock, the wonderful chief of surgery at Johns Hopkins. That was where I had wanted to go but he had died a couple of years before. His heir apparent was David Sabiston, who was inexplicably passed over for a non-Hopkins chief named Childs. Childs was a well known expert on liver but Hopkins had been the center for heart surgery since 1944.

    Anyway, the story goes that Blalock had a black man lab assistant who had come with him from Vanderbilt when he took over Hopkins. The man was named Vivien Thomas. He had wanted to go to medical school but the Depression prevented him from doing so. He went to work for Blalock at Vanderbilt and was placed in charge of the research labs in spite of segregation. He moved to Hopkins with Blalock and taught all the young surgical residents how to operate as they rotated through the lab.

    The story is that Blalock and Thomas had developed the blue baby operation together and Thomas continued to perfect it. It was not intended as treatment but was an experiment to try to create pulmonary hypertension in dogs by connecting a major systemic artery to the pulmonary artery to increase flow. It didn’t work. The dogs did fine.

    When Helen Taussig, the pediatric cardiologist, got the idea that pulmonary blood flow was deficient in Tetrology of Fallot, the most common blue baby condition, she first went to Robert Gross at Harvard who had just become famous for ligating a patent ductus arteriosus. This is the opposite condition where the fetal shunt from aorta to pulmonary artery does not close at birth as it should and the lungs are flooded with blood.

    He is reported to have said, “Madam, I close ductuses, not open them.” She then went to Blalock and found he had already done the operation she was interested in but for another reason. In 1944, the first Blalock-Taussig operation for Tetrology was done and Blalock became world famous.

    The story is that Thomas stood over the chief’s shoulder in the OR and talked him through the operation, pointing out the details that only he know. Here is a painting of the two at Johns Hopkins. Thomas was chief of the research lab until he retired in 1979.

    There is a story that Al Starr had a black lab tech who was reputed to be the world’s greatest heart surgeon because he had been putting Starr-Edwards valves into cats and dogs for many years.

    I have a lot of this story in my book.

  13. The basic problem is intellectuals believe themselves to be globally superior human beings who should be dominate in society. This idea goes all the way back to Socrates, Aristotle and Plato. It probably goes back to marketing. Back in the day, people wouldn’t pay to have their kids taught by the ordinary or read books by them so intellectuals basically went into the business of selling themselves as extraordinary people with extraordinary insights.

    When people go to college, especially in the liberal-arts, they are being trained to intellectuals and they to saturated with the hubris that comes with it. They believe they should be on top and when they leave school and find that they are not, they conclude there is something wrong with society.

  14. Jonathan
    This seems to be a weakness of our culture. Manual skills are derided as “working with your hands”, i.e., low-skilled manual labor or hobbyist puttering.

    A friend in South America wanted some information about astronauts -especially any special stories I could dig up. I knew an engineering professor who had had a future astronaut as a student. The professor told me that the future astronaut had worked in a lab while he was an engineering student. He quoted a professor as saying that the future astronaut was the best he had ever seen at repairing equipment.

    When my mother, who had a master’s degree in biology, heard about what I had found out and was going to relate to my friend in South America, she told me not to include that anecdote, as skill with hands would not reflect well on the future astronaut- who eventually got a Ph.D. in engineering.

    My mother, like many people, assumed that manual skill reflected poorly on someone.

    One thing which many people don’t realize about manual skills is that they can be combined with good diagnostic skills, which can often mean superior ability to think in 3 dimensions. The future astronaut had to diagnose a repair problem before he could fix the equipment.

    As a homeowner in an HOA with an old boiler room with a previously jerry-built set of pipes, I have seen that plumbers vary widely in their ability to diagnose where pipes are going. Some plumbers are skilled tradesmen whose diagnostic ability is limited to elementary situations, such as a leaky toilet. Other plumbers can look at a complex set of pipes and figure out where the various streams are going- an ability which can rival that of some engineers.

    While I am not very skilled with my hands, I have done enough elementary carpentry and plumbing work to appreciate the skills of those who do such work for a living. When I hire them, I realize they can do the work in a third the time I would take for the task.

  15. A great story about Roentgen, who discovered x-ray, is that he was expelled from gymnasium in Germany for a prank. He was forced to take his degree in engineering instead of theoretical physics, as he wished. His professor, whose name I don’t recall, kept Roentgen as an assistant because he was a very skilled technician with lab apparatus. He even took Roentgen with him when he moved to another university and arranged for him to get his degree in physics.

    Roentgen discovered x-ray because of his meticulous lab methods. Nobody remembers the chairman of the department.

  16. Mike K – reminds me of what Einstein said in re: formal education – saying in essence true education was what occurred after formal education

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