LET’S QUIT WORSHIPPING THE KID WITH A B.A.
MANKIND CAN’T SEEM to get along without its superstitions, and the latest is that there's something magic about a college degree. From all directions we're being told that we need bigger and better universities and more graduates when, already, the handful of young men and women who used to be depicted in the Bulova watch ads wearing mortarboards and marching up a hill into the sunrise, all looking as if they were going to find a cure for something, has increased until there are 200,000 at university in Canada, costing $407 million a year. And that’s not counting the $247 million we're spending bulldozing over ivied buildings and beautiful old elms and putting up some of the ghastliest examples of architecture on earth to make room for them. (The ugliness is one man's opinion. Recently the authoritative U. S. magazine Architectural Forum, devoted considerable space to praising new Canadian university designs — but, of course, all the editors and writers of Architectural Forum probably have college degrees.)
We're told it's every Canadian’s birthright to have at least a BA. while the typical high-school drop-out is sketched from statistical evidence as a fumbling 55-year-old semiliterate laborer eking out a living on $4,488 a year and planting radishes in his backyard to make ends meet. The term “drop-out” is beginning to sound like "Borstal Boy,” and kindly newspaper articles, like a series that appeared recently in the Winnipeg Free Press, tell the young man who didn't go to college that life isn't over and that if he'll get the cork out he can still become a pastry chef, an Arctic ice observer, or learn to wind electric motors.
For any job he really wants, he's told he needs a degree, and it’s been said so often and by such important looking people that colleges are besieged with representatives of such firms as Xerox and IBM and Imperial Oil. trying to recruit graduates for managerial and administrative positions. This is called college recruitment and it's becoming such an important part of personnel work, with an annual college attendance of 460,000 expected by 1976, that these people are already practising recruiting on one another and attending seminars in places like Cleveland to discuss the best way to get a college boy. Twenty-four hundred years after Socrates needled the professional teachers of Athens for selling knowledge as a gimmick for getting ahead in the world, instead of teaching how to tend the soul and pursue The Good, he’d be trampled on any campus in Canada by college recruitment co-ordinators who arc convinced that The Good is $10,000 a year, with a chance of it getting better. Even
ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN
who deplores the great B.A. cult, finds that you don’t really need a college degree to do most jobs. But try getting hired without one
some churches have representatives hanging around the universities now, hopeful of salvaging a few students for God and away from the petroleum industry.
I he terrible thing is that because it s considered true that you need a college degree to succeed, and because everybody says it's true, it's becoming true. It's getting very hard to get a good job without one. At Imperial Oil in Toronto, the main-floor receptionist asks you it you have a degree before you get a chance to waste the time ot a personnel worker who only deals in degrees. Without a degree, it s almost impossible to get a job today as a junior account executive in any major advertising agency, or in the personnel department of a company selling soap on a national scale. A girl can hardly get a job writing fashion news on any of the Toronto papers without a college degree. When I asked one woman editor why you need three years of the English poets from Chaucer to Yeats to write lines like, “Everybody is going to have fun with little pieces of fur this fall!”, she got sore and said it wasn't that at all; that if a girl had a degree it meant that she had breadth of interest and wider horizons and was more of a whole person, and, well, she could talk about opera and things like that. When 1 said the only kid I knew who really and genuinely and without self-delusion liked opera the way most of us like beer was my daughter who went through nursing school where she learned how to calm neurotics, the editor said, "Well, anyway, why shouldn't I try to get people with degrees? If I can get an apartment with an air conditioner, a swimming pool, and a sauna bath, why should I take one without them?”
This was fairly typical of the reasons for hiring people with degrees that were given to me during a couple of weeks of talking to employers. I was told that a degree was a kind of guarantee that a person had certain basic and desirable qualities. Many employers said that what a degree really meant was that you could think. Two pretty girls eating cucumber sandwiches while sitting on a grassy slope beneath an oak tree on the University of Toronto campus told me that a university education teaches you to think — and they said it just the way a beauty-pageant contestant says. "I like dancing, cooking and water skiing.” A young executive told me, confidently across a polished desk the size of a pool table, that his company's management-development program practically excludes anyone without a college degree because a degree teaches people to analyze problems, set themselves objectives and obtain them. It means, he said, that they can
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THE KID WITH A B.A.
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It’s easier to demand a degree than to look for talent
study and apply themselves intelligently to anything, and that it might surprise me that his company didn't care what the degree was for. It could be a degree for Egyptian architecture: the thing was it was a degree. One of their top executives is an architect and another has a degree in forestry.
Not once did anybody mention what you learn in college. Nobody mentioned the joys of poetry, the sheer pleasure of philosophy, the downright fascination of history. They spoke of college degrees as if they were immigration visas. Scholarship or love of learning was absolutely never mentioned, and the only time I even read anything that hinted at it was when somebody gave me a stack of newspaper clippings, about six inches high, that touched on everything from the proper design for our new colleges, to the cost to the taxpayer of The Human Investment. A Dominion Bureau of Statistics publication entitled Earnings And Education said (on page 51) that the student may acquire a greater appreciation of art and literature as a by-product.
The life of a scholar, something I would dearly love to live myself if 1 could afford it. was never mentioned. I gathered that any kid caught lying under a willow tree reading the Odes of Pindar today would be labeled as someone who spent too much time with his mother, but that if he went to college because he was a smart kid and had learned that the lifetime earnings of a person with a university degree is $353,624. whereas the someone with only three years of high school earned only $168.257, he was the kind of whiz kid we have universities for.
More than one undergraduate told me that he felt that a college degree was a “door opener.” and he said it exactly the way he'd say “can opener."
The truth is that a college degree is becoming just a commercialized version of the old school tie.
It means that you’re the right kind of person. Lever Brothers issue a discreet little wire-bound book called Career Opportunities Eor University Graduates that gives the feeling you have to take holy orders to sell Blue Surf. One photograph shows eight Lever directors standing around a table the size of an altar top, contemplating boxes of Breeze, Lux, All and tubes of Pepsodent, and every man has a degree, clearly listed after his name, including one from Oxford and another from Cambridge. Procter and Gamble,
another giant pacesetter in these matters. with a voice like Moses in the business world, and an advertising staff of more than 60 people giving The Word to seven advertising agencies, issues a pamphlet called Careers In Business Management, showing photographs of 28 P. & G. men doing everything from piling up boxes of Bold, the Totally New Laundry De-
tergent, in a supermarket, to watching a railroad employee close up a box car. and all but two have college degrees. Under each photograph is conscientiously stated the college from which he got it — “Brand Man Bill So-and-So, McMaster.” These men all have such serious and scholarly expressions that if you look long enough you forget that it all results in a television commercial that nearly drives you mad. about how your wife will smell as good when you get home as she did when you left for work that
morning. if she uses the right soap.
I had a peculiar half-kidding conversation with an old friend of mine w'ho has made so much money as a high - ranking executive in a retail clothing firm that it must keep him busy keeping track of it. He didn’t go to college himself, but he has picked up the idea that a degree is about the closest thing we have today to a halo.
and he insists that anyone coming into the firm have one.
“Look,” I said, "let’s say I’m a young guy 24 years old and I want to work for you because . . . well. 1 like your face and I always wanted to work in a pants factory. But I haven’t got a college degree and . . . ” "Why haven’t you?” he said coldly. After a week of talking to other employers I was getting too foxy to tell this one it was because I didn’t like school. So I said, “Because I had to support my mother and my six
brothers from the time I was 12.”
“I'll accept that,” he said, "But you'd better be able to prove it. Anybody can get a college degree these days. He jabbed a gold-colored Eversharp at my tie. “Personally 1 think if you haven’t got a college degree there might be something wrong with you. I think you’re probably lazy and disorganized.”
I think he’s too lazy to find out if an applicant has anything on the ball. It's easier to ask if he has a degree, and if he hasn't, to tell him to go back to school. I think the reason he hires people with degrees in business administration and economics and finance is that he’s a fad follower and probably belongs to some organization like the Royal Ancient Order of Racoons. It seems to me that this country could save a lot of money and a lot of old elms now being destroyed to make room for new colleges. if we devised a kind of one-year cram course that would provide a student with what businessmen really want: the right collection of middle-class tastes and biases and standards. The student would be taught the really important things instead of wasting time on such subjects as literature. He would learn where to buy an attache case in the right color, how to choose a hat with a brim just the right width, and he would familiarize himself with the subjects that businessmen really talk about endlessly: the new cars, the most powerful outboard motor, and the most efficient power mower. Such a cram course would teach him what cocktail is in fashion (right now Manhattans are out, martinison-the-rocks are in). It would teach him the right district to buy a house in. and the right kind of wife to put in it, and give him an ear for the latest in business - world catch phrases.
What it all boils down to is that a college degree today comes pretty close to meaning that you wash regularly, and I think it would be more honest and a lot less expensive if we went back to the days of the hero of Horatio Alger's 19th-century books Ragged Dick, and Luck And Pluck and Tattered Toni. who just had to show that he kept his shirt clean and starched and that he wanted to get ahead for the boss to recognize his worth.
You don’t need a degree to be a success at many of the jobs that you now can’t get without one. Admittedly, some jobs are highly technical and require people with technical degrees to fill them. But then there are those kids who emerge into the world with BAs — and more of them get hired
THE KID WITH A B.A.
each year than any other class of graduate. Three or four years in college teaches little, or nothing, about the jobs they get. Whatever they learn they get from experience and a liking for the job. A kid who started piloting racks of women’s dresses through a sub-basement, getting the feel of the merchandise and how to avoid getting needled by the garment industry, will be so far ahead as a merchandise man by the time he’s 23 that nobody with a degree in business administration would ever catch up to him. A successful buyer of men's suits didn’t get that way from undergoing broadening experiences in a lecture room. I’ve known and worked with these people, and a successful buyer of men's suits is a man who thinks suits and loves suits, comes to work bouncing on the balls of his feet and humming little tunes, and it you run into him after not seeing him for a year or so he grabs you by the arm as if he’s overjoyed to sec you again: but what he's really doing is feeling the material in your suit. 1 think getting this kind of talent confused with liberal arts is a waste of university space as well as of good merchandise men.
They can’t write
I think it’s a waste of good future writers, too, to insist that beginners have university degrees. Any smart editor knows that a lot of his best writing is going to come from people who came right from reform school. And he couldn’t care less. On the other hand, hardly anybody with a university degree can write. University graduates all divide their subject into main topics with Roman numerals, and sub-topics with numbers, and then get little red pencils and list all the points they're going to cover, and after they’ve done all that they haven't the faintest idea of what to put under them. 1 have an elaborately prepared booklet in front of me now put out by Procter and Gamble written presumably by someone with a degree in journalism, and it's absolutely unreadable except to someone who would be fired if the boss caught him not reading it. I counted four cliches in the first nine lines, which is high for even this type of opus. It's all about how the son of one of the founders thought of the name Ivory Soap while he was sitting in church one morning listening to Psalms 45, 8: “All thy garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia, out of the ivory palaces whereby they have made thee glad,” which reminded him of a good name for his product “Ivory Soap.” All of which may be an outstanding example of sales promotion, but it's hard to believe we’ve got it confused with the importance of a college education. ★