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 Texas : Features : Columns : Notes From Over Here :

Degree Or Not Degree

by Byron Browne
Almost daily, I tell my students to get to work, stop whining, hunker down and get busy. I tell them college is a comin’ and they better get ready. I relate stories to them about my troubles obtaining the couple of degrees that I have. I tell them that hard work and discipline are necessary for future success and that they would be better off getting into that mind set right now instead of trying to get it together later when the baby is crying and the rent is due. I tell them how 35% of American college students drop out either during or at the end of their first year in college because they were wholly unprepared for the difficulties it presented. I throw this information at them continually and I have been for over 13 years now. So, you might imagine how stunned I was the other day to read that none of my rants matter, not one little bit.

The other day I received an offer, through my e-mail, to purchase a college degree. In fact, the business stated that I could buy as many as I wanted. Their site insisted that “The more degrees you Have [sic] the better your chances and prospects in life. That is the way Life is.” What a thing. All that time I spent reading and studying, drinking coffee at two in the morning to stay awake to get my work done was a waste of time. I could have pulled out my credit card instead of those books and achieved the same measure of achievement. It was suddenly of little consequence that I can recognize an Alexander Pope quote from a mile away and calculate the tip at the restaurant without the calculator on my cell phone. I could have had a scotch and gone to bed.

Obviously, the program is as bogus as Clyde Barrow's philanthropy. But, you have to hand it to them, they understand the prevailing mentality. Like the little girl in ‘Willie Wonka’ -we want it now! It is a shame, however I wonder how many people actually follow through with the purchase. Why spend hundreds of dollars on a simple degree when for a few thousand more you could have a seat in the Illinois state senate? In our rush for success we seem to have forgotten the basic principles involved in obtaining it, i.e. working for it.
Wales Hadrian's Wall
Hadrian's Wall in Wales
Photo courtesy Sarah Reveley

In ancient Roman society those young men fortunate enough to have been born into the wealthier families were educated in order to create the generals and statesmen that first the Republic and then the Empire needed to sustain itself. The grammaticus, typically a well-read Greek slave, educated Roman boys from around ages 10-16, in literature, astronomy, mathematics, music and history. He taught all those subjects that we usually regard as belonging to a fully formed liberal arts degree. To the Romans the acquisition of this sort of knowledge was essential for adulthood. For these people, familiarity with the audacious machinations of Philip I, the poetry of Homer and the drama of Aeschylus was information as fundamental as the ability to defend, feed and house themselves. Cicero wrote that “to not know what transpired in the past, is to remain forever a child.” Obviously, for himself at least, a history lesson was in order. The lessons of the grammaticus stayed with many of these men late into life. Agricola, the first century Roman governor of Britain is said to have been literally pushed out the door of the classroom by his mother so that he would pursue his military and political career. The emperors Marcus Aurelius and Hadrian are as famous for their military and political prowess as their predilection for Greek philosophy. The Romans, as a whole, believed in the value of an education. They knew a liberal education was an essential component of future achievement; they knew the benefits outweighed the costs.

In my classroom these days every student indicates that he or she will attend college. We talk about and plan for it daily. I try very hard each day to fill their heads with the information that I know they will need very soon. I rant and rave, wave my hands in despair, curse, pace the floor and generally make a clown of myself all in order to propel my students to the university. I know they will need those degrees to give success a boost. I know that those degrees will grant them the liberty to dictate for themselves what course their life might take as opposed to having to take direction from others ad nauseum.

Nevertheless, there is the almost constant concern among parents that the diploma will fail to manifest. The fear that a particular university may reject an application is a warning that the life’s work to that point will have been wasted. Grades below B are, for some, certain indicators of future calamity. At that point, the education becomes irrelevant and the paper, that diploma becomes the only entity worth attention and its acquisition the sole focus. Learning be damned-where’s the degree? This battle is for the teacher as invariable as forgotten homework. It is this mentality that produces items like on-line college degrees. We will obtain what we want immediately by crook or hook. And mollifying hysterical parents has become just another element of the teacher’s daily chores.

The same day as I first saw that ad for the Internet degree I heard a commentator on the radio mention that, in her opinion, students today don’t want an education, they only crave the degree and the entitlement that it offers. In all my years of teaching I am sad to report that I think she is offering an educated assessment. The good news is that, like Super Wal-Marts and pre-packaged food, if the will is there, the trend is reversible.

The Romans understood that an education is worth its weight in gold. We would all do well to remember that the value of a diploma is in the process, in the education itself. Those diplomas and degrees are valuable only when they hold the weight of toil of learning within them. So, maybe I’ll keep my day job. And that on-line degree company, why don’t they sell a legitimate college degree replete with hard work, studying, late nights, frustrations and exaltations? They know they couldn’t afford even one.

Copyright Byron Browne

Notes From Over Here
February 1, 2009 Column
Byron Browne can be reached at Byron.Browne@gmail.com

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