Saturday, June 10, 2006

"Corporate slave auctions" or "How Joel got into Princeton".

I had a conversation with a friend the other day and we got to talking about the ridiculousness of the resume-building/job-seeking process, especially with regard to how it has shaped the actions and expectations of the young generation.

Here in America, kids (with increasing involvement of their parents) are doing more and more to outdistance themselves from their peers in the hopes of getting the college admission or job internship of their choice. Numbers of college bound students continue to increase and education costs are skyrocketing, but the university diplomas being awarded (or rather, sold) are increasingly viewed as rubber stamp products.

But it is not just the diploma that ends up as an assembly line good. The university system also wants to put their stamp on you. The pursuit of knowledge and "higher learning" has taken a backseat to socializing the "student" and certifying him or her as a uniform product, ready to be molded in the team-driven corporate image or funneled off to graduate level training.

In the 1983 film, Risky Business, Tom Cruise's character, Joel Goodson is a high school student trying to nail down his future. With his life plans contingent upon an admission to Princeton, Joel is sweating it big time in advance of an interview with a university admissions officer. Despite Joel's solid grades, test scores and extracuricular activities, he is informed that his record is not quite Princeton material. Joel's only recourse is to put on a jubilant face and talk up his back up plan - "Looks like University of Illinois!"

Interestingly, today Joel's transcript would probably not even secure his place at the state school. The acceptance standards have gone kiting upwards, but the discourse has been homogenized and dumbed down. College is the new high-school.

So what is really going on in the academic world? What are some of the educators saying about the role of the university? I wanted to get a quick sense of what kind of information was out there, and surveyed the terms "universities" and "selling certification" by means of a quick Google search. Here's an example of what I found. From a post entitled "The economics of academia - part I":

I'll try to explain what I think is involved in what the students and their parents are buying from the university. Here's what it's not: knowledge. If the goal of going to college was just to obtain information, then a library card or a good internet connection would be much more cost effective.

So what are universities selling students and parents? In large measure, we're selling certification, and the potential for enhanced economic success that comes with it. Students are not just our customers, they're our product.

Parents, students, and the teachers themselves are sensing this. In a perverse turn of logic, the diminishing returns seem to encourage an even greater sense of competition for preferred placement. Over the course of the past year I've noticed a steady stream of articles cataloguing this trend. The latest, appearing in this weekend's Wall Street Journal, is entitled "Internships For Sale". The piece lays out the current trend in which companies are offering summer internship placement through school charity auctions. Here are quotes excerpted from the print edition:

"Schools say internships have strong appeal at charity auctions with parents who see them as resume builders for college applications".

"But critics say the practice raises questions. Connections have long played a role in getting internships. But putting them up for sale can mean discounting the merit of a potential candidate altogether."

After reading the thing, I'm still trying to figure out who wins and who loses out. Some of the internships are paid positions, but the parents may have doled out more to secure the spot than the position pays. Of course, this is beside the point for eager parents and resume builders who feel that the experience value and the potential for making contacts surpass the monetary cost. By the end of the piece though, some of the company participants were even backing off from the program descriptions, insisting that they were not "internships" but rather, job "shadowing programs". Nice: just as long as someone brings me my coffee.

The kids and their parents are so willing to play the game that they will offer themselves as indentured servants or even pay for the privilege of working their way into the organization of their choice. It's not enough to be bright or hard working or both. You have to be "actively involved" and prove you're a good person. Kids today are giving up all their free time outside of school to actively pursue the do-gooding and interning that might help to secure the college berth or job of their choice. What I want to know: is it worth it?

So far, kids and parents seem to be taking the pragmatic view that it is. As long as college and the corporate workplace stand as the modern pillars of success, the prescribed path will be taken by the multitudes.

But what about the kids who want to think and act for themselves? What role is there for the individual who does not care to work and think by committee process? For those young people who truly want to learn and understand the world around them, rather than play cynical games for acceptance? Shouldn't we value a young person who is true to himself and others? The thinking, moral person who does a thing because he is moved to, not for how it looks on paper.

Maybe we would make this country, and even this world, a better place if we were to encourage this kind of learning and introspection. I'm even inclined to believe that we'd all be a little bit freer, and certainly happier, more civil, and more prosperous if we did. Your comments are welcome.