In the middle of the 19th century, Southern and Eastern European nobility started to send their children to be educated in Paris, Berlin, and Moscow. The majority of these princes came back to their countries and introduced the ideas they learned at school. One of the well-known dictums in Europe is “as the university goes, so does the country and the world.”
When I look at my family, I can see how we were impacted by the places we lived and the educational systems we took part in. My great-grandfather on my father’s side was educated in the Austro-Hungarian system. He became a local politician and had 12 sons and daughters. One of those daughters, who went to school for just 4 years, married my grandfather. My father and mother also attended school for just 4 years. By the time that I was in school, my sisters and I were required to go for 8 years. At that time, the major division happened after 8th grade—students could remain on the farm, they could learn a trade, or they could take the exam to enter the gymnasium for 4 more years of school. In the United States the requirement became 12 years, and then the student decided to go to college or learn a trade.
My family came to the United States after 16 months in an Italian refugee camp with three major goals—to escape religious persecution, to create a better life for the parents, and to gain a college education for all four children. In communist Eastern Europe, the children of believers were not allowed to be baptized until they were 18 years of age. Thus, all four Stefan children were baptized in the United States. Our lives in the United States were so much better than they had been in Yugoslavia, even though our parents worked two jobs each as hospital custodians and on the factory line. My parents’ greatest joys were when their youngest child was baptized and when she graduated from college. The goals of my parents had been accomplished—we were members of the church, we lived better lives, and their children all graduated from college (one child had a master’s degree and one had a doctorate).
I was raised with a deep desire for learning and believed that all of my children had to go to college. It was never a question. “Excelsior!” was our family motto to the degree that my loving wife once joked that education was the idol of the Stefan family. So, our four daughters have graduated from college with various honors (summa cum laudes, magna cum laudes, and laudes), several of them have added additional certificates and courses, and one is pursuing a Ph.D. because she loves to teach like her mother and father, many of her aunts, and her maternal grandmother.
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In a recent speech to the graduating class at a college, former President Obama mentioned that if one had to choose a time period to be born, most of us would choose the present because of the many opportunities we have in the 21st century. (Although some people might choose to see the progressive future.) In an article about the differences between the Dutch and the French, the author stated that Dutch people appreciate educational degrees and experience, while French people work towards their degrees so they can apply for certain jobs.
Right now, in the United States, President Biden is pushing for college loan forgiveness and declaring that everyone is entitled to a college education. Education is so expensive right now that both individual students and the government are questioning if it is worth the investment. As someone who teaches at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, I find that some students should not be in college because high school has not prepared them for college, and some should not be in graduate school because college has not prepared them for post-college studies.
Some people say that a college education is the right of every American and it will ensure an abundant life. They quote the line about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness from the Declaration of Independence. To suggest that not everyone should be in college brings an avalanche of vitriolic responses, after which one needs a long shower. Do a hairstylist, a plumber, a mechanic, or a technician need four years of college to do their work well?
Teaching as an adjunct professor in the United States, one gets paid $3,000 per class. When my children first found this out, they could not believe how much money their father gets! But then they found out that the semester is made up of 13 class sessions of 3 hours each and I needed to prepare at least 9 hours for each class. Then there was administrative work and grading for almost 40 hours and the 13 hours it took me to get to campus and back throughout the semester, for a total of 208 hours. When one divides the $3,000 among 208 hours, the result is $14.42 per hour. My friend who is a plumber charges $100 to $150 for the first hour that he works. Lawyers charge $300-$500 per hour and an accountant’s price can be $250 per hour.
In the 21st century, there is such a variety of professions. Each job requires different skills and training. We do our workers and our students a disservice when we act as if every person needs to follow the same path to college to achieve different career goals.