In the Basement of the Ivory Tower Book Review

Those of you that have been reading this blog for any length of time know my disdain for the current state of education in the U.S. I subscribe to Peter Thiel’s notion that hyper-inflated prices, investments by ignorant consumers funded largely by debt, and widespread faith in increasing returns will invariably ensure that higher education is the next bubble to burst.

Is a college education still worth it for most people?

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” Professor X, an instructor at a small private college and a local community college, sets out to answer that question and to share what he learned about his struggling students and the college system. These were some of my favorite takeaways from the book:

On our insistence that everyone needs a college degree:

“Our society, for all it’s blathering about embracing diversity and difference , really has no stomach for diversity and difference when it constitutes disparity.”

“Our American unwillingness to count even the most hopeless of us out of the educational marathon may be on of the most debilitating ideas in contemporary culture, a jagged gash through which vitality and truthfulness and quality slowly drain away.”

“Until the core job-training components are separated from the rest of the college curriculum, students less inclined toward an academic track will suffer.”

On how unprepared students are:

“The American zeitgeist of limitless possibility is a beautiful thing to behold. I, too, want desperately to believe in it. But some of the students I encounter in the community college world test my belief in the ultimate workability, the sustainability (to use the fashionable term) of what we have set up.”

On college as a business:

“Americans venerate education, perhaps unduly. With every increase in enrollments comes a positive tick on someone’s performance evaluation, another measurable achievement for someone’s curriculum vitae. And with every increase in tuition revenue comes more incentive to grow.”

On the ROI of a college degree:

“The collapse of our public education system and the skyrocketing cost of private education threaten to make college unaffordable for millions of young people.”

“It’s really about what it means to be 28 and try to make loan payments and health insurance premiums and still put something aside for a down payment on a house.”

On College vs. Home-Ownership

“The same societal urges that lowered the bar for home-ownership have lowered the bar for higher education, and the similarity haunts me.”

On self-learning:

“The magic of teaching is vastly overstated, mostly by teachers, and by those who staff programs that have economic interest in teaching prospective teachers how to teach.”

On female empathy & feelings of maternity for students (when passing those that shouldn’t):

“In 1971, 31% of college teachers were female; by 2009, the number had grown to 49.2%. There are more women teaching in college than ever, and it is quite possible that their presence, coupled with our discovery of postmodern narrative, has had a feminizing effect on the collective unconscious of faculty thought.”

On Writing:

“Writing is difficult because we don’t even call it what it is. The writing, the recording, the typing, whatever, is the least crucial part. Writing is thinking and crafting and editing; unfortunately, the writer always desires to make progress, and without constant vigilance may slip out of thinking and crafting mode and into mere progress, which can signal doom.”

“Is there any process that calls for more self discipline to get it right with less potential payoff?”

I learned a lot in college, very little of it that I’ve found applicable to my current job function. And I absolutely think college can be a great experience, but I also realize that I was born into a privileged situation where college was always a destination where I would likely graduate with little (or zero) debt.

What about all of the people that graduate with $25,000 of student loan debt (the national average), get out during an awful economic time, and compete with much more experienced workers coming back into the workforce? Do RNs, dental hygienists and computer programmers really need a four-year degree to signal to a potential employer that they have what it takes? Or do they need real, tangible experience?

I don’t have all the answers, but I hope that we’re at least starting to ask the right questions.

What do you think? How did your college degree prepare you for your job? If you’re someone who does have a lot of student loan debt, would you do it all over again? Because you think you have to in order to succeed or because your degree set you apart and gave you an advantage? I’d love to hear your stories and experiences. Please share in the comments.


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  • Great write-up, Ryan.

    I graduated with a computer science degree, and though I’m doing web design and social media marketing mostly right now, I can’t say that it was “worth it.”

    I went to a private school where tuition was in excess of $40K/year — my parents insisted on paying for my schooling — and I never felt like the education system in place there did a good job of preparing me for what came next. And I mean that in every way, from pure technical knowledge, to critical thinking, to work ethic, etc.

    What set me apart and made me attractive to employers — Oracle hired me out of college — was that I dedicated myself to a part-time software engineering position while I was an undergraduate. That experience was invaluable for me.
    James Kerti´s last blog post ..Hello world!


    Ryan Stephens Reply:

    @James – Private school is a tricky wicket. I appreciated my liberal arts education and some classes were phenomenal, but frankly many were very easy. My degree didn’t prepare me for the real world (hence: graduate school – which did, a little); however, maybe that’s my fault for choosing that degree path.

    And therein lies something else to think about? Do most 18-year old kids have a clue what they want to do with their lives? What are cheaper alternatives to college that could help kids discover their passions?

    I think now more than ever taking a passive approach to your education and believing that at the end of the day you’ll have something (i.e. grades, et al.) that separates you from your peers is asking for trouble. You have to go out and get the things you want.

    Thanks for sharing your experience and adding to the discussion James.


    James Kerti Reply:

    Exactly, and I think that passive approach is the problem.

    In what other area of life would people look at taking such a passive approach to something that requires an investment of four years and a great deal of money?


  • Is it a great choice for most people? Yes, because most 18-24-year-old kids aren’t going to do much with themselves during that time if they don’t go to college. Working retail while living at home may bring some cash in, but it’s really not going to teach anyone much.

    Internships, apprenticeships and similar programs are the answer. Real-world experience, hopefully doing something that matters, is going to get people where they want to go.

    Though I highly recommend community college when starting out. It’s cheaper, you’re less likely to be distracted by typical college parties and most CCs expect students to have outside jobs, so it’s easier to schedule classes.

    If I could change anything about my college choices, I would definitely still go to CC, I’d think a lot harder about my university choice and I would have skipped my Masters program.

    But HAD I skipped my masters program at ASU, I would have never moved away from home and likely wouldn’t be working from home almost every day. As long as you use college as a springboard rather than a prep course, you’ll be fine.

    What’s a little crushing debt, anyway?
    Tyler Hurst´s last blog post ..Ingrown Toenail Surgery & Post-Op Care


    Ryan Stephens Reply:

    I think you’re absolutely right about most 18-24 year-old kids, yet I wonder if there’s something we could do culturally as a society to encourage more pursuit of real world experience in fields people MIGHT be interested in? Or a way to change the educational experience for students with less proclivity to excel in academic settings?

    Personally, I didn’t go to a community college because I felt I wouldn’t be challenged and friends that made 4.0s at community colleges, only to struggle like hell when they transitioned to a 4-year institution confirmed that for me.

    Maybe it’s time for higher education to be for people “built for academia” and additional paths/programs, etc. form for the rest of the population. But then organizations would have to hire the computer programmer who’d built 3 Rails apps by the time he was 19 over the 23-year-old with a degree and no real world experience. And a shift of that magnitude takes a lot of time and ethos that won’t prevail during our lifetime.