The Myth of the 'The Knowledge Economy'

By Alexander Cockburn

March 21, 2012 8 min read

Only 25 percent of all Americans go to college, and only 16 percent of those actually try to learn anything. Welcome a nation of helots.

"In the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a first-class education," President Obama famously declared in his 2010 State of the Union address, just as millions of high-schoolers across the nation were going through the annual ritual of picking their preferred colleges and preparing the grand tour of the prospects, with parents in tow, gazing ashen faced at the prospective fees.

The image is of the toiling students springing from lecture room to well-paying jobs, demanding advanced skills in all the arts that can make America great again — outthinking and outknowing the Chinese, Japanese, Indians, South Koreans and Germans in the cutting-edge, cut-throat, high-tech economies of tomorrow.

Start with the raw material in this epic knowledge battle. As a dose of cold water over all this high-minded talk, it's worth looking at Josipa Roksa and Richard Arum's recently published "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses." The two professors followed more than 2,300 undergraduates at 29 universities, selected to represent the range of America's 2000-plus four-year college institutions.

Among the authors' findings: 32 percent of the students who they followed in an average semester did not take any courses that assigned more than 40 pages of reading per week. Half did not take any courses in which more than 20 pages of writing were assigned throughout the entire term. Furthermore, 35 percent of the students sampled spent five hours or less a week studying alone. Typical students spent about 16 percent of their time on academic pursuits, and were "academically engaged," write the authors, less than 30 hours a week. After two years in college, 45 percent of students showed no significant gains in learning; after four years, 36 percent showed little change. And the students who did show improvement only logged very modest gains. Students spent 50 percent less time studying compared with students a few decades ago.

One of the study's authors, Richard Arum, says college governing boards — shoveling out colossal sums to their presidents, athletic coaches and senior administrative staff — demand that the focus be "student retention," also known as not kicking anyone out for not doing any measurable work. As Arum put it to Daily Finance, "Students are much more likely to drop out of school when they are not socially engaged, and colleges and universities increasingly view students as consumers and clients. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that all students want to be exposed to a rigorous academic program."

In his one sensible sally Rick Santorum briefly struck out at ingrained snobbery about going to college, a piece of derision it didn't take him long to retract. It turns out only about 30 percent of Americans over the age of 25 have bachelor's degrees. Jack Metzgar had a useful piece recently on the Talking Union site with this and other useful facts.

The U.S. government's Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2010 only 20 percent of jobs required a bachelor's degree, whereas 26 percent of jobs did not even require a high school diploma and another 43 percent required only a high school diploma or equivalent.

Please note that the latter 69 percent were therefore devoid of the one debt in America that's even more certain than taxes — student's loans. At least if you're provably broke, the IRS will countenance an "offer in compromise." In fact, they recently made the process slightly easier. No such luck with student loans. The banks are in your pocket till the last dime of loan-plus-interest has been extorted.

Now for the next dose of cold water. The BLS reckons that by 2020 the overwhelming majority of jobs will still require only a high school diploma or less and that nearly three-fourths of "job openings due to growth and replacement needs" over the next 10 years will pay a median wage of less than $35,000 a year, with nearly 30 percent paying a median of about $20,000 a year (in 2010 dollars). In other words, millions of Americans are over-educated, servicing debt to the banks and boosting the bottom lines of Red Bull and the breweries.

The snobbery stems from the fact that America's endless, mostly arid debates about education are conducted by the roughly one-third who are college-educated and have OK jobs and a decent income. The "knowledge economy" in the U.S. now needs more than 6 million people with master's or doctoral degrees, with another 1.3 million needed by 2020. But this will still be less than 5 percent of the overall economy.

The BLS's three largest occupational categories by themselves accounted for more than one-third of the workforce in 2010 (49 million jobs), and they will make an outsized contribution to the new jobs projected for 2020.They are: office and administrative support occupations (median wage of $30,710); sales and related occupations ($24,370); food preparation and serving occupations ($18,770).

Other big areas of opportunity: childcare workers ($19,300); personal care aides ($19,640); home health aides ($20,560); janitors and cleaners ($22,210); teacher assistants ($23,220), non-construction laborers ($23,460), security guards ($23,920); and construction laborers ($29,280).

As Metzgar writes, as a society, "the best anti-poverty program around" cannot possibly be "'a first-class education' when more than two-thirds of our jobs require nothing like that."

So what is the best anti-poverty program? Higher wages for the jobs that are out there, currently yielding impossibly low annual incomes. The current American minimum wage ranges between $7.25 and $8.67 per hour. On a fairly regular basis, executives of Wal-Mart call for a rise in the minimum wage since, in the words of one Wal-Mart CEO, Lee Scott, "Our customers simply don't have the money to buy basic necessities between pay checks." The minimum wage in Ontario, Canada, is currently well over $10 per hour, while in France it now stands at nearly $13. Australia recently raised its minimum wage to over $16 per hour and nonetheless, it has an unemployment rate of just 5 percent.

Any Republican candidate seriously pledging to raise the minimum wage to $12 would gallop into the White House, unless — a solid chance — he wasn't shot dead by the commentariat or maybe by a Delta team acting on Obama's determination relayed to him by the bankers, that this pledge constituted a terrorist assault on America. As Ron Unz, publisher of The American Conservative recently wrote (calling for a big hike), "The minimum wage represents one of those political issues whose vast appeal to ordinary voters is matched by little, if any, interest among establishment political elites."

Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at

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