By: Ted Rebard

Fraudulent admission to universities has seen much press recently, and deservedly. In a few instances, beyond this, it has, and I believe more importantly been noted, that there are least two further and more widespread frauds involving university admission and attendance. First, it is simply false to imagine that everyone should, or even can, much less ought to have a university education. Second, most university education in America is itself fraudulent.

In the first matter, while unwelcome to the egalitarian ear, it is stubbornly factual that not everyone is equally intellectually talented. Some are quick; some are slow; many are in-between. This is not news. Plato made this apparent both in his Republic and in his Apology of Socrates. This is not to say that persons are not equal essentially; it is to insist, as do common sense and ordinary experience, that the accident of wit is not evenly distributed, as indeed no single talent is equally distributed. To illustrate: how many can dance like Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers? How many can sing like Kiri Te Kanawa? Compose like Mozart? Write like Milton? Think like Thomas Aquinas? Hypothesize like Newton? Paint like Vermeer?

To the second matter, the curricular requirement and grading standards of American schools and colleges in the last 100 years amply reveal that less and less is achieved, while the same credentials are given. Moreover, foundational liberal studies are nearly extinct, or distorted beyond recognition. Yet these provide the intellectual basis upon which every further effort depends. No matter the knowledge of STEM subjects, or of the business disciplines, or of pre-legal studies, for example, there is no more than a house of cards house if they are not built upon and accompanied by the foundational studies of philosophy, theology, literature, and their allies. Literature, it is to remembered, is the beast of burden in the transmission of culture.

I offer these rather abrupt remarks, well-documented in many other places, only as background to my main focus in this essay: The value of leaving college aside in favor of a trade, of a steady job of any sort, or of military service. In fact, indeed, these may be lessons seldom learned in the university environment these days.

Here it may be helpful for me to read into the record that I have an earned PhD from a prestigious university and have for over forty years taught in university liberal arts departments. Every semester I see enrollees who do not have the intellectual wherewithal to perform at the university level, or who do have the wherewithal, but do not want to be in such a setting. Some of these almost consciously know their condition; it is to be read in their faces. How much better for these very young men that they be someplace else, of their own choosing, and proceeding with the young adult lives??

In a fanciful moment, I imagine what good advice might be given to a young man who, having graduated from high school, did not want to ‘do the done thing’ in college, but instead wondered what else to do, and were there any other worthwhile course?

First advice: Do one of the following: a) Take up a trade; b) get a steady job; c) join the military. I’ve listed these in no particular order, and depend on the young man himself; much the same gains can be achieved in each.  A warning: If, and almost only if, a young man adopts the  proper attitude, that is, one of willingness and readiness to improve his  life, will he stand to gain by from such non-university steps forward in his life.

What might the achievements be? Again, in no particular order:

  1. Obedience to obligations. We live in a social environment that is nearly neurotically obsessed with rights. Some of these are vital, serious, foundational, and indispensable to human life, such as life itself, freedom of association, and property; others are as ephemeral and diaphanous as tissue-paper, such as self-manufactured sexual identity or a right not to be offended.  Now is a time to stress obligations, not least because human life is itself a network of obligations. A corrective against this social toxin of rights-focus is to undertake obligations. This is only one corrective among others of course, but there is great gain for self and society where persons have learned obedience.  On the ground, this means that the employee is obliged to do as told by the boss and obliged to work respectfully with others.
  2. Obedience requires humility; it requires that one see one’s self as at least secondary to others and to other more important matters. Obedience beaks the back of pride, and self is the principal idol whom most of us are tempted to worship. Doing a job requires that one ‘think about one’s self less,’ and about others and the work at hand more. It should be noted that sometimes humility is learned by being humiliated. Humility is prerequisite to every act and every form of human excellence.
  3. Very nearly every job, if not indeed every job, requires working among and with others. Work in the concrete is teamwork and almost forces the acquisition and deployment of social skills, such as deference to others, sharing burdens, and simple good manners – mutual respect. In the present generation, often these skills are not learned at home or in school, for many reasons, not the least of which is the paradoxical isolation and loneliness of kids who are super-connected via technological devices as social media. Surely, while one can be educated into better patterns of action, it is equally true that one can allow better patterns of action, even as forced by working circumstances, to better his patterns of practical knowledge.
  4. Working with others also induces, that is, provides the condition for learning fair-play, a simple version of justice, the personal virtue that deals with obligations to others, focusing attention beyond one’s self. This is a beginning of generosity, an essential of happiness, because happiness is never to be found in grasping unto one’s self, but only in giving of one’s self.
  5. In actual fact it is no secret that other people are often difficult, and even very difficult to deal with; others impose hardship and obstacles to giving our respect to them, and even co-operating with them, much less taking their orders. Working with others decently requires facing some things that are unwelcome and troublesome; it requires and thus gives the opportunity to develop courage.  It’s easy to imagine and associate courage only with combat soldiers, firemen, cops, and emergency medical personnel, but this is a mistake of scale; it’s far too narrowly-focused. Courage is the virtue, the personal excellence, by which one does what is good and right despite its being hard or painful, and perseveres in so-doing.
  6. Courage is a daily need in a good life, simply because living well, living as the real man a young man is called to be, is not easy; doing the right thing is not easy. This is mere fact. Hardship and pain intrude into every human life, and will conquer you unless you can conquer them. Many years ago a friend’s father told all his children repeatedly, ‘Life will hit you hard.’ He was of course right.
  7. Finally about courage, Theodore Roosevelt’s words are apt; these words are to me even more emphatic because I was recently reminded of them by a friend who is a US Marine: ‘Courage is not the strength to go on; it is going on when the strength has left.’
  8. Hand in hand with facing difficulty manfully, there is the restraint of anger. Disregarding for the nonce certain subtleties, it is generally true that men are more aggressive than women. This means that for men it is more important to learn to restrain anger, to be patient, to moderate both attitude and outburst. To do this a man must become temperate.  Temperance is that mark of character that holds back from the raw impulses of passion, including not only carnal passion, but also those passions that explode in anger and extreme despondency as well.
  9. None of the above will ‘just happen.’ As suggested already, the growth manliness requires concentration of mind and work; it requires discipline. (Have you ever watched a skilled craftsman focus on a task? My dad used to tell me about a sign-painter he knew who had Parkinson’s disease, but who could ‘put it on hold’ in order to paint perfect lettering on office doors and the like, but as soon as his brush left the glass, it began to shake crazily.) This needs emphasis in 2019 and with the so-called ‘iGen’ especially because of long habituation to need no further attention span than required to read a Facebook post. A new level of life, real adulthood, is here offered, to those who will take up the challenge. Excellence is never an accident.
  10. Even on a purely material and economic level of life personal excellence and maturity are to be learned from work or military service – probably better than they are to be learned, or at any rate are in fact learned, by university ‘students.’ Here’s what I mean: One of the crucial, indispensable ingredients of adulthood is dealing with delayed gratification. If you are not making much money, you are forced to be careful of its use: food, housing, and the like. Fact: Most beginning steady jobs pay little. Buying one’s keep with one’s own earned money means that it is personal; your own labor is invested in it; the opposite: ‘easy come; easy go.’ With little money, planning is demanded; one has to learn to provide for tomorrow, and this requires frugality today. Frugality does not mean being cheap; it means avoiding waste. Having little to waste breeds the antipathy to waste. No parent can care adequately for his children without looking after their future, without frugality in the present, without skill at deferred gratification, without providence. Maybe, in fact, these are skills that are almost exclusively acquired by young men (and women) who actually work at steady jobs.
  11. In all these matters above, there is one single factor at work: personal responsibility – actively taking personal agency. Excuses are for children. Proper pride and guilt are for adults.  Self-examination is prerequisite to both the pleasure of pride in work well-done, in achievements, as well as honest guilt (with the attendant resolution to improve). Self-knowledge includes the unwelcome practice of putting one’s very self in the dock and arraigning  one’s very self, passing no blame, on charges of failure. Sometimes we are innocent, and other times we are guilty, but always we must be brutally honest before all else. A contemporary English prison physician take note that criminals always speak a language that excludes responsibility: ‘The knife went in;’ never ‘I stabbed a man.’ Real men take responsibility when they are wrong, and they are fairly often wrong, but the wrong is an admonition and an invitation, rather than a dead end.
  12. Even brief reflection on working at a steady job should yield gratitude: to those who gave you life, strength, education enough – in short, who enabled you to be on your own at all. Gratitude is another obligation, and like all obligations, is an invitation that underwrites your own generosity; earlier gifts are examples for imitation. Imitation, as Confucius noted, is the easiest way to learn. I suspect that generosity is very hard to learn in any other way. The loss or failure of gratitude in fact leaves a young man disinherited — alone, and unprepared for adulthood.
  13. None of the above come easy; they come at sacrifice of effort, of selfish preferences, of time, and of comfort. The delay of gratification, that crucial marker of adulthood, requires patience and sacrifice, which like adulthood itself, are socially in short supply.

Of course, many things mark the clear difference between true men and merely  chronologically older boys. It is in principle impossible perfectly to put these into words, and there’s almost no substitute for real fathers. So, admitting this poverty of words and that this is only an effort at a partial catalogue, by way of summary, I wish only to note emphatically that some vital features of manhood are available to any young man who wishes to grow up in the fault-free omission of university education, in the highly advantageous alternatives of trades, almost any steady work, or military service. Here’s my list: Obedience; humility; teamwork; social skills including fair play and simple justice; courage; temperance; discipline; concentration of mind; frugality; the valuation of property; planning & providence; deferred gratification; personal agency & responsibility; gratitude; generosity; patience; and the habit of sacrifice.

Beyond all this, lest it be neglected: All of these marks of character render a young man eligible to become an authentic husband and father. Without them, his handicap is severe, and, as events of the past half-century have shown, nearly impossible to overcome. Good women do not want to marry boys.

Before I end this short and surely incomplete effort to lay out some advantages of opting out from university education, I will again refer to my own experience. In fall of 1971 I started my four-year undergraduate education. Immediately thereafter I pursued a PhD. Even before reaching the terminal degree, I began classroom teaching as a fellow at my graduate institution. One semester before defending my dissertation I began my first tenure-track university job, and have taught full time since. It’s been 48 years since I first walked into a college classroom, and for 43 those years I’ve been teaching. The only reason to say this is to show that I’ve seen more undergraduates than are easily counted, and watched as their careers have gone along. In all of this, I can say with brutal honesty that few at graduation exhibit the character they might’ve earned without the cost and wasted time of university. There are many who take degrees, but few who grow up and are educated.

Sadly, the non-college option is today in America neglected, even scorned. It seems the majority have bought the lie, and are paying far too high a price, not merely economically, but humanly and socially, to their own detriment, and to that of the nation.     

09 / 06 / 2019
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