Tonawanda News

September 6, 2013

ADAMCZYK: The walls behind the ivy are shaking

The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Status symbols exist for the benefit of people we want to make jealous, or at least those we want to make aware of what we’ve got going on. For that, the Jaguar in the driveway or the pearls around one’s neck is as valid as a Channel 17 coffee cup or a T-shirt with the Goo Goo Dolls’ tour schedule on the back.

New college freshmen (hi, kids) should be aware they are entering, descending actually, into a labyrinth of social coding with their presumed education. Harvard? Buffalo State? Dorm room? Mom’s basement? Honor societies? Some really disreputable and dishonorable societies?

These are a part of the so-called “permanent record” of which we once heard and feared, and yes, they are status symbols, symbols of the puzzle that is one’s life, that follow you “from the rocking of the cradle to the rolling of the hearse,” as songwriter Kris Kristofferson (Pomona College, Rhodes scholarship) once wrote.

The college go-getters should know about another status symbol: a table composed of somewhat self-satisfied older men, guys with the commonality of achieving their idea of success in life without the benefit of advanced educations. They worked hard, got lucky, worked harder and now sit around restaurant tables or country clubs or seniors’ places and comment on things. 

College. Going to college. Part-timing one’s way through college. Having a son or daughter in college. A good college. Or maybe no college at all. Each is something to brag about, to someone.

I thought of this when I recently read an excerpt from a new book by Tyler Cowan (an economics professor at George Mason University, which is a college), “Average is Over.” Dig this:

“Within five years we are likely to have the world’s best education, or close to it, free and online. But not everyone will sit down and go through the material without a professor pushing them to do the work.”

An online education is definitely out there. It’s not only the torrent of information the Internet offers, but the quality; genuine college courses offered by excellent teachers from schools whose names you recognize have entire semesters’ worth of classes posted, and delivered for free. Philosophy, engineering, literature, history, math, business, oh, it’s out there.

When this catches on, those braggarts with college educations will be shocked to observe how little status their accomplishment conveys when compared to the motivated person who did it all, for free, without ever wandering the quad or attempting to park fast enough for that 8 a.m. class. All learning, no school, courtesy of the very mechanism that brings you porn, video games and inane Facebook posts.

What the conscientious independent student can gain is astounding, but what will we lose and have to rethink? Well, tuition, those decals in the rear windows of cars, high school teachers who suggest you’re not living up to your potential (if they lived up to theirs, they’d be lecturing on the Internet), college football, academic probation, laptop envy, Pell grants, the tyranny of the SATs, higher education as babysitter, tenure, publish or perish, state-mandated certification, alumni associations, dorm rooms, beer festivals in someone’s apartment … the list goes on, challenged only by the limited imagination of a college graduate.

If a person can locate, and succeed at, college-level Internet, he or she likely can learn how to drink. I’m not worried about that. What concerns me is the social upheaval when it dawns on the young, and families of the young, that not going to college, ever, except maybe to lecture, may be better than going.

Imagine a world in which a proud mother tells her friends her kid saved the family between 40 and 160 grand and got a quality education by loitering at the computer, something at which he/she is eminently proficient, and can outthink/out-reason/out-succeed her friends’ soggy-brained college graduate children.

Oh, baby! Independent thinkers who can look up what they need to know, then apply it like crazy to real-world examples. Go skim the world’s problems for 120 credit hours; I see a caste rising capable of dealing in solutions (and watch the political class run from this bunch).

I see this sort of thing already, and it thrills me. I once needed some advice in a Kenmore coffee shop about the location of the creamer container, and politely asked a college-aged young woman for it. She unplugged her ear buds, had me repeat the question, then answered it. I inquired what music she was hearing. No music, she said: German declensions, for her upcoming trip to Austria.

The college experience can be rewarding, but imagine the pure learning experience. The free, at-one’s-own-pace, cram if you want, relax if you want, learning experience. Did I mention free?

Ed Adamczyk is a Kenmore resident whose column appears Fridays in the Tonawanda News. Contact him at