In case you don’t know, it is, the White House has announced, Older Americans Month.
They say, in the newspaper game, “Write what you know.” I find I know about being “older.” That sounds just a bit kinder than the bald “old.”
Chalmers M. Roberts wrote a wonderful book, “How Did I Get Here So Fast?: Rhetorical Questions and Available Answers from a Long and Happy Life.” Quite so.
I was the youngest at everything for a long time. I didn’t go to college, so I got a head start in journalism. Leaving school at 16 wasn’t then considered a life sentence of being second-rate. In those days and that place, Southern Rhodesia, a college education was a rarity; and people who had one were regarded as wise, even if they were stupid, as they frequently were.
There was a different social dynamic in London, where I launched myself on the legendary Fleet Street four years later. Few had been to college and those who had were regarded in the popular press not with reverence, as they had been in Africa, but with hostility. I was even hired at the BBC.
When a very nice man, Roger Wood, became editor of The Daily Express, there was consternation. He was a university graduate and, to make matters worse, from Oxford. The end of our hallowed way of life (phony expenses claims, heavy drinking, and bad food) was at hand. En masse, the denizens of the newspaper world went to the pubs to mutter darkly about the imminent collapse of civilization. Change often is greeted with the sense that civilization is over.
Years later, I told Wood about the near insurrection his appointment to the popular London newspaper’s editorship had caused. He was surprised. The discontent had never reached the editor’s office.
In my next stop, New York, I was told, “No degree, no work.” At least not in television, and not at The New York Times. All three television networks wouldn’t grant me an interview even though I had been a scriptwriter at the BBC.
Perplexingly, The New York Times told me I could be an editor, but I could never hope to write in the newspaper because of my lack of a college degree. Go figure! You can’t write here, but you can fiddle with what others have written.
Despite this gaping hole in my past, I’ve managed and even pocketed an honorary degree along the way. I’ve lectured at a trove of universities, from Harvard and MIT to the University of Southern Mississippi. While, I think, for science there is no substitute for college, for the rest I’m less convinced.
These days, a heavy burden is put on people who don’t get at least two years of a college education, and an even heavier one on those who leave high school. Here, the language is indicative of the social stigma: You don’t “leave high school,” you “drop out.” That implies at a young age, a life going south, headed for repetitive failure.
The social pressure for an orthodox education is immense. The Biden administration, in its endless good intent, may be adding to the pressure on those who, for many reasons, took a different route in their lives. The role of the universities isn’t blameless. They have a predatory streak. They are as money-hungry as any corporation, shaking down the alumni and justifying it with moral superiority.
Treating formal education as the foundation of a social class is pernicious and destructive at all levels.
I used to fly light aircraft with a brilliant pilot — the best I have ever known. But despite skills and knowledge far above average, he was precluded from getting hired by the airlines: He didn’t finish college. Instead, he went off to fly airplanes.
A scientist of real ability, a friend of mine, who climbed high in Big Pharma was sidelined not because she was a woman, but because she didn’t have a doctorate, only a masters. So she became an administrator.
Governments are right to emphasize learning. However, they need to demand thoroughness and excellence in primary and secondary schools. Our public schools are a disgrace and damage children long before they decide whether they want to continue to college.
Now that I am an “older American,” I wouldn’t deprive anyone of a joyful life, as I have had, by limiting their opportunities with rigid orthodoxy about college. The university mission should be learning not class branding. I was lucky. I dodged the branding industry, known as college.
David Kemph says
Thank you Mr King for touching on a subject that is not brought up in polite dinner party conversation. I too “succeeded” without a college degree but I am not naive enough to think it is a template for everyone. The best advice I ever read was to pay attention to oneself. We offer clues to ourselves each day about what we should be perusing.