George F. Will: A case for upward mobility

Published: June 20, 2013
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In a historical blink, Lindsey says, humanity has moved from lives rooted in a remembered past to lives focused on an imagined future. This future orientation favors the intellectually nimble. “Who gets ahead, who struggles to keep up, and who gets left behind are now determined primarily by how people cope with the mental challenges of complexity.” And coping skills are incubated in families.

Today, the dominant distinction defining socioeconomic class is between those with and without college degrees. Graduates earn 70 percent more than those with only high school diplomas. In 1980, the difference was just 30 percent.

Soon the crucial distinction will be between those with meaningful and those with worthless college degrees. Many colleges are becoming less demanding as they become more expensive: They rake in money — much of it from government-subsidized tuition grants — by taking in many marginally qualified students who are motivated only to acquire a credential, and who learn little.

Lindsey reports that in 1961, full-time college students reported studying 25 hours a week on average; by 2003, average studying time had fallen to 13 hours. Half of today's students take no courses requiring more than 20 pages of writing in a semester. Given the role of practice in developing expertise, “the conclusion that college students are learning less than they used to seems unavoidable.” Small wonder those with college degrees occupying jobs that do not require a high school diploma include 1.4 million retail salespeople and cashiers, half a million waiters, bartenders and janitors, and many more.

“Most American kids,” Lindsey concludes, “are now raised in an environment that is arguably less favorable for developing human capital than that in which their parents were raised.” America's limited-government project is at risk because the nation's foundational faith in individualism cannot survive unless upward mobility is a fact.

George Will's email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP

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