Going to Graduate School, Then and Now

Back in 1973 when I first went to graduate school, “going to graduate school” meant something different than it does now. Then, “going to graduate school” was something that a person could do if they had sufficient imagination, talent, and commitment—and, of course, money—to scale the heights of knowledge. Grad school then was about climbing to specified levels of knowledge that were sufficiently difficult to reach that some people—to be blunt—weren’t smart enough to reach them. And it helped if the aspirant could “climb” solo; that is, unencumbered by spouse or children, mortgage or car payments.

Then, irrespective of a would-be grad student’s stated motivation, most of them could reasonably anticipate that employers would eventually be happy to hire a person who had earned a graduate degree—even if only for the discipline employers took graduate diplomas to represent. And that likelihood made it seem reasonable for people then to anticipate having few problems paying back loans they may have taken to pay for their grad degrees, whether from banks or from family members. And that made it easier, both practically and especially morally, for sufficiently talented college grads to construct the decision whether to go to grad school then in solely individualistic terms: do I want to go to grad school? Speaking for myself, that formulation came easy for me back then: I had no moral reservation at all.

Now, the context around the decision has changed so much that rendering the decision that way is almost unethical per force. Many graduates of all levels are moving back in with their parents and finding “jobs” in unemployment lines.

Often, they are discovering that their only hope is no hope at all. And many people are worrying that either Pax Americana or Greenland’s ice cap will run out of days before they do. NOW, at such a time, it seems to me that the moral basis for constructing the decision whether to “go to graduate school” as a primarily personal matter is both self-centered and self-defeating.

And that is apart from substantive changes in what “going to graduate school” means; in particular, what some graduate schools teach and how they grade. In my personal experience, some graduate schools award diplomas based not on climbing to or beyond a required height, but instead on the basis of how many hoops a student jumps through; in effect, such graduate schools have become “continuing education” mills.

That’s not to say that there is no room for such “continuing education”, especially during these difficult times. Indeed, we desperately need continuing education, continuing re-education, and continuing up-education if we are ever to find our collective way beyond these difficult times—as a world, as a country, and as people one-at-a-time. But we shouldn’t think of them or refer to such programs as “graduate school”, and I don’t think that we as a country any longer have sufficient resources to support carte blanche any decision about education made by any one person for any reason whatsoever—even though that was how I did it, then. (I sure wish I had more foresight, then…too.)

A close friend recently earned a graduate degree from a name-brand school. She told me that she hoped her diploma would mean more than, as she put it: “This diploma means that [HER NAME] spent X-thousand dollars taking classes at [NAMEBRAND UNIVERSITY].” Another close friend described her experience with one of her reports who graduated from an avowedly student-responsive MBA program as “unable to write even a readable email”.

In another instance, a professor I knew told me that she gives all A-range grades because students never come to argue for higher grades, leaving more time for her to do research and write for publication, which was her way of saying “tenure and promotion”. This situation was exacerbated by the department strategy, which that professor’s department chair defended lax admission requirements by saying, “If we tightened up admission requirements, we’d lose the department.” In effect, the program was being run in significant part as a jobs program for program faculty.

And such diploma mills are supported by what might be termed an “iron triangle of education”: taxpayer-subsidized loans, administered by MBA-type “smartest people in the room”, with the tacit collusion of professors like the ones I just described. One university with which I am personally familiar stressed “student retention” as a primary responsibility of its faculty—an “assignment” that only the most naïve administrators would fail to anticipate faculty complying with by increasing grade inflation even further.

letcherTaxpayers have a right to expect more for their money, and during these difficult times, they desperately need more for their money. They have a right to expect their support of institutions of higher learning to provide higher learning. It seems to me that such learning would of necessity lead us to attend more to collective, “Spaceship Earth” knowledges, the specifications for which—as Don Michael suggested in his On Planning to Learn—and Learning to Plan—we would have to learn how to help each other learn, as part of the very effort to bring them about. Needless to say, that won’t be easy. But, to survive, we must succeed. And to have a chance to succeed, I think, we must restore the old meaning of “going to graduate school”: process-wise and substance-wise—and wise-wise.

Robert A. Letcher, PhD

Robert A. Letcher, Ph.D describes himself as “an academic with a disability instead of a portfolio, a writer, and a Qigong practitioner who tries to help people learn”.

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