The fallacy of blaming universities for unemployment

I feel obliged to respond to wretchedly short-sighted articles like this one in Salon that critique liberal arts programs for not preparing people for the brutal job market. I’m just going to say this as simply as I can: It makes no sense to blame universities for producing graduates who can’t get jobs, because the problem is the employers, not the employees. We don’t have a “shortage of qualified graduates”; we have an employment system that’s broken and harmful, an employment system that prioritizes the needs of business owners and managers over those of society and the general population, an employment system, in short, whose constant failure to sustain collective life and common dignity is scarcely to be blamed on the educational system. In the end, education is only one input into the employment system, and when the problem is that system itself, it just makes no sense to dump all the blame onto one of the system’s inputs. If you put someone through a meat grinder, no matter how well prepared for the experience they may be, no matter how much they’ve been educated to be a good, flexible, attractive lump of raw flesh, they come out ground to pieces.

Now, contrary to received wisdom, unemployment is in no sense inevitable. In fact, anthropologically speaking, the phenomenon of unemployment is an aberration. The majority of human societies have had no such thing as unemployment. This should be obvious, if we reflect for a moment on the structure of work in small-scale agrarian societies where people work primarily for themselves and for their household. There were, for example, no unemployed people among the Nuer of Sudan, at least not when E. E. Evans-Pritchard studied them back in the 1930s. He informs us that “there [was] enough land for everybody on the Nuer scale of cultivation… it is taken for granted that a man has a right to cultivate the ground behind his homestead” (p. 77). Or take the Gawans of Papua New Guinea, in Nancy Munn’s account. Gawan men and women alike were expected to work, and the lazy were condemned; as among the Maenge, “passivity [was] the social defect par excellence.” Nevertheless, “daily work,” which focused on the family’s garden, “is planned by each person or nuclear family… [and] a person’s participation in any wider group arrangements for work depends entirely on individual decision” (p. 75, p. 30). For that matter, Michel Panoff, writing about the neighboring Maenge, notes that it took an average of four hours of daily work per adult to feed a nuclear family.

A world where a normal family with no money could work four hours per day to keep itself comfortably fed is, to us, unimaginable. A world where people by default have decent access to the means of sustenance even if they’re not wealthy and haven’t done well in the “brutal job market” is, for us, somewhere past the horizons of our collective imaginations. A world where there wasn’t a harsh competition to be able to participate in reproducing the material basis of our world is, basically, inconceivable. And the limits of inconceivability are accepted as normal; and the fact that our society is an anthropological aberration is utterly unknown.

The America (or for that matter the France) that I know today is a world where people waste their lives begging to be part of a system that structurally can’t take care of everyone. A system that benefits from not hiring everyone, because not hiring everyone keeps pressure on the employees to accept lower wages, because someone else is always waiting to take their place. It is a world where people are completely acclimated to the ludicrous circumstance that work is scarce because the definition of work has become impoverished, taken over by a paradigm that defines work as wage labor for the private sector. Where people who can’t find wage labor sometimes just do nothing. Or, sometimes, die of depression from lack of work.

This is, in my view, a moral and social and psychological tragedy; but it is also a tragedy of the intellect and of the imagination, one which also amounts to a gigantic indictment of anthropology as an educational project. Anthropologists — there are thousands of us after all — ought to be able to get out the word that there is no law of nature saying work must be scarce; that societies can and do exist that aren’t ruled by the law of the wage, that there are societies where the labor system is better adapted to the material needs of the population. While anthropologists may not want to judge other societies by our values, there’s nothing stopping them from reminding their own society that it is killing off parts of itself for lack of collective imagination.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not pretending I have a magical formula for a new labor system (or for the political process that might make one possible). Although I think the average subsistence farmer was clearly better off than the average unemployed American, I’m not proposing that we all become subsistence farmers, nor do I oppose a division of labor. But I think the current employment system is a disaster for all but a minority; I think the reduction of work to wage labor is suicidal, or at least that it drives some to suicide; and I am convinced that in a decent society or even in a normal one, unemployment would not exist.

But even if you don’t agree with me about that, even if you are convinced, for instance, that some unemployment is for the greater good of our economy, or that alternative models of work have no hope in the immediate future, or that the merits of cross-cultural comparison are debatable, I would argue that my basic point stands. Which is: that it makes no sense to look to higher education to solve our employment problems, because the problems of higher education are not the driving force behind unemployment. Perhaps at times certain kinds of higher education can create new kinds of jobs, but that, I think, is the exception to the rule, and the dominant vocational function of higher education today is to sort out who gets a job and who doesn’t. Hence, advocating that liberal arts degrees be more employable is really just a way of saying that you would prefer a person with a liberal arts degree to get hired instead of someone else. But this only shifts the burden of unemployment, the burden of misery, from one set of shoulders to another. And so anyone who hopes to improve employment in general, and not just the particular lot of their chosen group, needs to discuss the flaws of our whole employment system, rather than those of higher education, which has become nothing but an exaggerated scapegoat in our current discourse.

5 thoughts on “The fallacy of blaming universities for unemployment

  1. I disagree that unemployment can be completely eliminated without other worse consequences. But I agree that the government could do something significant about it. Unfortunately the public is unaware of what they should be asking for and so, in our democracy, they won’t get it. I also agree that liberal arts faculty bear little responsibility. Students who choose an education that places them in debt and fails to help them find a job, however, should (and often do) take some responsibility for their choices. Not that I don’t feel for them. Nor would I oppose all reforms that attempted to help such individuals.

  2. I’m not sure it’s fair to say societies had no unemployment when they didn’t have “employment” as we understand it, at least for the majority of people. Employment suggests a wage paid for work done (whether that’s cash or barter) on a semi-regular basis, which cultivating one’s own land doesn’t provide. Employment is part of a modern economy (and I mean “modern” not as a term of progress but of historical recency). And many societies have had mendicants or beggars or some people who one could consider a pre-modern analogue of unemployment.

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