Monday, September 27, 2004

Overeducation

Dennis Mangan has a good post on overeducation. It reminded me of a graduate student I once had and with whom I became friends. He told me once that after he finished high school he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and get a job with the railroad. His mother, however, wanted something ‘better’ for her son. She wanted him to go to college, which he did, in the desultory fashion of many. He ended up declaring a major in psychology and graduating. After spending some time in a monastery, perhaps also at the instigation of his Irish mother, and still not knowing quite what to do with himself, he was accepted into an M.A. program in philosophy, which is where I met him. After goofing around for several more years, he took a job as a social worker, a job which did not suit him. Last I saw him he was in his mid-thirties and pounding nails.

His complaint to me was that, had he followed his natural bent, he would have had fifteen or so years of job seniority with the railroad, a good paycheck, and a house half paid for. Instead, he wasted years on studies for which he had no real inclination, and no real talent. He had no discernible interest in the life of the mind, and like most working class types could not take it seriously. If you are from the working class, you will know what I mean: ‘real’ work must involve grunting and sweating and schlepping heavy loads.

'Overeducation’ is perhaps not the right word for cases like this. Strictly speaking, one cannot be overeducated since there is and can be no end to true education. The word is from the Latin e-ducere, to draw out, and there can be no end to the process of actualizing the potential of a mind with an aptitude for learning. Perhaps the right word is ‘over-credentialed.’ It is clear that what most people want is not an education, but a credential that will gain them admittance to a certain social and/or economic status. 'Education’ and cognates are euphemisms.