A Long-Delayed Return
Well, in the midst of everything in my life right now, I have managed to avoid posting much. However, while doing some random searches, I came across a blog entry on degree inflation. I couldn't resist responding but ended up more so pontificating on my opinions (little surprise there). Since my response was so lengthy, I figured I would post it here for the whole four of you who read this guy. For the original post to which this is directed, please see: http://shyangela.blogspot.com/2006/05/miseducation-of-educated-in-north.html
I just stumbled upon this entry while reflecting on degree inflation in America and am most pleased that you have taken time to reflect on this. I try to see things as part of a whole cultural complex (but am often too myopic in my vision because I'm merely one lone software engineer in Virginia with a limited vision). However, it seems to me that the current situation of degree inflation is directly related to two things.
First of all, the developed West has a tendency toward cultural homogenization (or perhaps it is merely affluence has a development toward that). I would argue that such homogenization generates the sense that intellect is defined in categories of educational degrees (since you can easily lump people into categories then). This I know personally because I have struggled on and off with the question of pursuing a PhD and still really don't know if I want to do so. Deep down, I would much rather just be my own man, drawing my knowledge from as many sources as possible, weeding past the bias of others (and avoiding it all in lieu of a hiatus when so desired). However, the cultural force of egalitarian homogenization tend to make us define ourselves in such monotonous terms. This first point misses the fact that intellectual brilliance is a nothing other than lightening out of a clear sky. (For this, I often like to think of J.R.R. Tolkien whose chief renown and influence came from a by-product of his linguistic work. The world is continually shocked by the brilliance of his mythology precisely because he is not part of the entrenched, homogenized caste of “professional authors”.) However, our minds have seemingly been trained against viewing things in such "risky" categories (which almost elude categorization) but instead opt to view the world through the only lens which we know, namely that of homogenized, easily discerned, categories.
I would go further and say it is a product of cultural narcissism which impels one to desire a title after his or her name. Once again, I know that in my own self-doubts, I have thought, "Well, I could prove myself with [PhD,S.T.D.,J.D.,M.D......] after my name and would therefore be vindicated in the eyes of others." Of course, such self-centered narcissism is fully seen to me looking "externally" at my thoughts and ambitions. However, we once again are somewhat conditioned culturally to have that narcissism because of the affluence of our culture and easily miss motivations for a degree. This subordinates our individual brilliance to a degree. (Narcissism is one of those tricksters which generates the exact opposite of its desire. The desire for an image rarely can generate it but instead, as in this case, leads to a fleeting surface-deep image and nothing more. It neglects the fact that risks must be taken, reputations risked, and slowly developed in ways that often require steps of faith, for they seem to be incongruous with the main stream of culture and thought. Think of how odd relativisitic physics seemed to those in Einstein’s time or, more pungently, how unimportant Jesus must have seemed to the point of annihilation. However, look at how these men – and so many others – have influenced the world for so very many years. ) Indeed, degree-Narcissism derails the human task because it places an immutable boundary on the unbounded task of “how do I best contribute to the edification of the world” with the boundary of “how can I do well in the world today.” The former is infinite and unbounded while the latter is bounded and limited to a certain epoch (at best, a moment at worst)
Of course, we have such difficulty coming to the "divine corrective", so to speak, for all of this. In my opinion, the best option is a good dose of reality. All we have to do is look around to see what is the root source of true happiness and success in the world. In the final analysis, it is merely a matter of passion which drives talent (and even hones in those categories which may be called, for lack of a better term, non-talent). Reality teaches us that the beige often endures in its own day but dies a quiet death and is forgotten but the truly brilliant (and this means much more than intellectual – the brilliant of mind, heart, soul) have a chance to live forever. Safety and security are predicated upon being beige, for brilliance, like the sun itself, is a dangerous affair (but a glorious one). Perhaps it explains the bitterness of those who are safe-and-secure (be it in a protected industry, academia, union, etc -- not to imply that all in any of those groups are safe-and-secure in their mentality, just that some are) toward those who are successful in the world. Such individuals trade in the risk for safety and security (a very tempting wager, I am aware), only to look on the outside at those who have thrown their whole lives into the mix. This envy goes three ways: (1) Hatred – think of all the anti-movements that exist. (2) Nihilism – Think of those who just don’t care because they are “beat down”. (3) The most important: It can drive people to realize that reality may have a message, namely, “Take the risk; live life amidst all the risks – and glories.”
Homogenization allows for relative safety and security but never for a blinding flash of brilliance, unless one leaves the beige crowds to stand out with resplendent radiance. It takes an individual to drive a people. It takes that flash to remind people that each of us can do great things if we only follow that driving passion which, in the end, is naturally evident to each of us. Then education becomes a tool which is used as needed to that end. It then leads us out of darkness into the light and concomitantly makes us be a “light on the hill for all to see.” For some, this may be continually done in the academic realm, for such is their vocation in life (and it will be glorious if such is the case). For others, however, it may well be that such e-ducation will only take place fully in a realization external to that. Achievement thus becomes a question of “how have you edified the world today?” The degree never even comes up. When confronted with the truly brilliant, we stand in awe of their radiance and pay no heed to the externals, instead finding ourselves wholly immersed in an experience of the very depths humanity.