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Educated Nitwits…

… or The Purpose of Colleges and Universities

My dad had to leave school in Western Missouri after 5th grade to support his 11 brothers and sisters when their father died just before the Great Depression. If he’d had the advantages that he and my Mom worked so hard to give me, then surely he would have been an architect or, more likely, an engineer.

So, he was very proud when I graduated with my own engineering degree. In fact, I and my brother were the first in his family to get a college degree, and the only two of our two-dozen-ish cousins to do so.

As with most topics, my Dad had a practical, prudent wariness about ‘Higher Education’ and those involved in it. He’d even thought about it enough to have a philosophy of sorts about the Ivied Halls of Academia.

One day, shortly before I headed off to college, I asked my Dad what he thought about college and ‘College Boys’.

“I’ve worked for a lot of ’em; even worked with some,” he said.”Most were ok, I guess, but when they screwed up something it was generally because they had their heads in the clouds—short on common sense. You’ll probably want to pay attention to how things work there.

Since being short on common sense had been the defining trait of my youth, I was apparently well-prepared. But, I said, “Ok,” thinking of some Space Case High School teachers I’d had. “So, why do I need to keep an eye out?”

And Dad told me his philosophy. “The way I see it,” he began, “a college has two jobs: get people ready to build on progress we’ve already made, and think up new ideas that help. It’s the ‘new ideas’ part where the wheels come off in the world of professors.

“Most new ideas aren’t worth spit. Maybe one in a hundred or less will ever make sense in the real world. But society shelters  the people inside universities from the real world on purpose. That helps the most new ideas keep coming, and lets ideas that start out stupid rattle around enough to maybe make more sense after awhile.

“The trouble is that some of the educated nitwits there think their 99 stupid ideas actually make sense. And that those stupid ideas make more sense than the rest of us, on every subject. So, they try to push those ideas outside the academic incubator along with the very few good ones.

Since they don’t know much about real life, they end up fooling themselves and each other into thinking they’ve come up with the best thing ever.

“But aren’t they really smart?” says I.

In reply, Dad said, “Let me tell you a story about your Uncle Woody.

“Before the war, Woody traveled with a carnival for a few years as a roustabout and magician’s helper in the sideshow. The Magician had been with the carnival since just after World War I and Woody said he put on a good show.

“You know what the magician told your uncle about tricking people? He said that the more educated a person who saw the show was and the more full of themselves about their education they were, the easier it was to impress them with magic tricks.

“Farmers and carpenters and ditch diggers know that when you saw a lady in half, she stops smiling and talking. But, ‘Doctor’ this and ‘Professor’ that try to figure out how you sawed her in half in a way she could still talk! That’s a Big difference, Dave.

“College can be like that. Lots of people there spend a lot of time and long, fancy words trying to convince everyone that stupid stuff is real and real stuff is stupid. And they get paid to do it. They can’t even be fired no matter how foolish a normal person knows they are. And that’s ok, as long as the stupid ideas stay inside those walls along with the fools. 

“So, pay attention, Dave. Have fun and learn what’s needed, but don’t let them convince you that they can solve poverty by pulling a million coins out from behind your ear.”

And I did pay attention, thanks to Dad’s always-sage counsel—as much as any young idiot does. And it was true!

Somewhere in my Sophomore year was when I knew that Dad was right. By that time, it was clear that lots of people in Liberal Arts, Communications and Poly Sci couldn’t find their butts with both hands and a map. Even when they were sober. And especially when the time came for personal hygiene.

An elite few were clearly in the line of succession for King of the Clueless: book smart people who thought up was down and that the sky should be green because blue was racist somehow. Most often, their major was Drugs or Booze with a minor in Pre-law or one of the multitudinous flavors of The-Man-Be-Holdin’-Us-Down pass-fail studies.

Fortunately, I found that the Engineering faculty was a kind of protective haven on campus. Who’da thunk that Metallurgical Thermodynamics could be so pleasant?

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