By Kevin Comer
In 1964 JDM could not have imagined the reality of 2014, any more than I can imagine how things will be in 2064. JDM would never have imagined the cost of college rivaling that of a modest suburban house. Nor would he in the midst of the post-war boom have foreseen hordes of debt-shackled kids emerging, one way or another, from American colleges into a blasted landscape of opportunity. It is likely JDM never heard the phrases: Outsourcing, technological displacement, or STEM (Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics).
I have no idea what JDM might think of our current national circumstances or what his prescriptions might be. But JDM has left us clues to how he might feel about the state of higher education in America in 2014. The evidence suggests he’d think things were still heading in entirely the wrong direction.
JDM would strongly disagree with the popular proposition that the purpose of higher education is to land a better paying job. Way back in 1964, he already felt colleges were putting too much emphasis on preparing students to enter the work force. We’ll find evidence in the pages of A Purple Place for Dying (1964).
A Purple Place for Dying puts McGee somewhere in the American Southwest, when his prospective client is suddenly blown away in mid-sentence by a distant sniper as she’s trying to convince Travis to recover money she claims her estranged husband has stolen from her trust fund. A shaken and mortally offended McGee resolves to find her killer, and his ensuing investigation takes him to State Western University, a brand new institution of higher learning recently extruded onto the desert wastes.
Arriving on the sprawling campus, McGee surveys the crowds of students scurrying across the black acres of parking lots and along sun-bright walkways coursing through the immature landscaping separating the hulking concrete structures of SWU, and offers us this critical observation:
…They all seemed to have an urgency about them, that strained harried trimester look. It would cram them through sooner, and feed them out into the corporations and the tract houses, breeding and hurrying, organized for all the time and money budgets, binary systems, recreation funds, taxi transports, group adjustments, tenure, constructive hobbies. They were being structured to life on the run, and by the time they would become what is now known as senior citizens, they could fit nicely into planned communities where recreation is scheduled on such a tight and competitive basis that they could continue to run, plan, organize, until, falling at last into silence, the grief-therapist would gather them in, rosy their cheeks, close the box and lower them to the only rest they had ever known.
It is all functional, of course. But it is like what we have done to chickens. Forced growth under optimum conditions, so that in eight weeks they are ready for the mechanical picker…
It isn’t particularly surprising to hear this sort of opinion voiced by semi-professional rebel and rat-race dropout, Travis McGee. But we might be a little surprised when McGee continues:
Education is something which should be apart from the necessities of earning a living, not a tool therefor. It needs contemplation, fallow periods, the measured and guided study of the history of man’s reiteration of the most agonizing question of all: Why? Today the good ones, the ones who want to ask why, find no one around with any interest in answering the question, so they drop out, because theirs is the type of mind which becomes monstrously bored at the trade-school concept. A devoted technician is seldom an educated man. He can be a useful man, a contented man, a busy man. But he has no more sense of the mystery and wonder and paradox of existence than does one of those chickens fattening itself for the mechanical plucking, freezing and packaging.
Holy smokes! McGee declares flat out that an education even partially geared to earning a living is merely a “trade school concept”. And he isn’t overly impressed by people with marketable technical skills, either.
I know of no factor in McGee’s back story to account for his harsh opinion concerning college providing the sort of practical skills upon which careers are built that contribute to society’s goal of achieving optimum aggregate demand. Maybe this is simply justified pushback at the expectations of Keynesian macroeconomists—Meyer was not yet in the picture—but I suspect McGee may have been subtly influenced by the mind of his creator.
It seems JDM shared Travis’opinion that the unstated goal of the American educational establishment is to “…feed [consumers] out into the corporations and the tract houses, breeding and hurrying, organized for all the time and money budgets…” During an interview on the radio program Library Edition, long after A Purple Place for Dying was published, JDM had this to say:
Right now the schools are raising a good batch of consumers and maybe that’s what they’re there for. These people, they can find their way around supermarkets and they can find their way around showrooms … they know how to run their credit cards.
Despite an undergraduate degree in business and MBA from Harvard, JDM was a committed champion of a rigorous liberal arts education. He demonstrated that commitment in 1969 when he joined the board of trustees of New College, a tiny elite liberal arts college located in the town where he lived—Sarasota, Florida. He sold autographed copies of his work to help fund the school. He served briefly as executive director and taught creative writing for a time. JDM explained the goal of a liberal arts education in a letter to Albert Mittal, a young fan with whom he conducted an 11-year correspondence:
I am a trustee of New College …which has become in eight years one of the best small liberal arts colleges in the country. I have been deeply involved with it, and have come around to an elitist attitude re education. Of 600 of the brightest young people in the country, we can provide the resources for one out of fifty to hone his own mind to an edge of sharpness he could not achieve by himself … The brain is a muscle in the sense that the more demanding use made of it, the better it functions…We can turn out one out of fifty. It is a waste.
JDM’s elucidation of the value of reading to the listening audience of Library Edition reflects his liberal arts priorities:
[Readers] stand in the middle of a landscape that we’re familiar with. We know about those great swamps and marshes which are all of the religions and philosophies and all of the psychological identifications of what’s going on in the bottom of man’s mind …Let’s say there are rivers running through our landscape. Those would be the arts, literature, painting, all of the things that you learn from books that sharpen and enhance your mind …A nonreader is somebody standing there in a blindfold. They don’t see the history of anything…They don’t know what the world is like, because they haven’t read what history is, what geography is. They don’t know Lima [Peru] from lima [bean].
It shouldn’t escape anyone’s notice that there are no STEM tributaries flowing through the geography of JDM’s mind. He is concerned with human expression; the inner life; things of the spirit. Concerns that stand in stark contrast to job prospects.
JDM clearly felt the broader educational establishment had been falling down on the job for a long time. This concern leaks through to McGee again in A Deadly Shade of Gold (1965). Explaining his handling of reporters, Travis informs us:
…news accounts of almost anything make sense to all ages up to the age of twelve. If one wishes to enjoy newspapers, it is wise to halt all intellectual development right at that age. The schools are doing their level best to achieve this goal. For the first time in history it is possible to earn doctorates in obscure professional techniques without upsetting the standard of a twelve-year-old basic intellect.
It seems pretty clear that JDM and McGee would be none too pleased to find the sky-high cost of college justified as an investment in a career in 2014. They could conclude there are loads of young people attending college who might be better served by actual trade schools. Given their proclivities, I bet they’d wonder whose interest is really being served by the current state of affairs. I can hear Meyer advising, “Follow the money.”
But what do I know? I’m a technician.