The ocean of the Internet tosses up interesting flotsam, and then it sinks below the surface again. I read some passing reference, perhaps by Niall Ferguson, to the British Empire needing a lot of clerks to do the computing, and thus schools to train them in the essentials of empire: completing and processing forms, and thus neat handwriting and arithmetic. (I’d like a citation.) We’ve since invented mechanical computers to tabulate and process the forms, and outsourced the completion of the forms themselves to the end-users.

In this otherwise excellent discussion of AT&T’s Workforce 2020 program, an employee training initiative intending to re-skill 100,000 employees in the next three years, Randall Stephenson makes a throwaway comment that, of course, the student has to learn the new skills on his own time. Because, we’ll help you help yourself, but only if you’re interested in keeping up with the changing world. (My experience of layoffs at AT&T has been that when jobs are eliminated, the people are generally given the opportunity to apply for any remaining jobs.) The coursework that Mr. Stephenson mentions is available at Udacity and Georgia Tech. It’s an exciting program. These are, for the most part, skills that didn’t exist less than a decade ago, using tools that were pooh-poohed by big companies like AT&T. But what about general purpose skills? What about the world beyond the virtual?

I spent today assisting with completing the FAFSA and TAP and PROFILE and now I’m tired and wondering what would be the harm in disregarding parental ability to pay and considering only the student’s assets, if those. Though I suppose then colleges, trade schools, and such might either lower their fees in order to attract students, turn elsewhere for funding, and go out of business. Is it really optimal for adolescents to guess what the labor market might demand in four years rather than for an employer to train an employee to do what needs being done now or in the relatively near future? It’s unreasonable to expect any student to take on debt based on the assumption of future earning potential. One, they’re not in any position to make an accurate assessment of their prospects; and, two, robots. In four years 9.5 million truckers will be looking for new work. Meanwhile there’s a shitload of clerical work that’s purely inefficiency — healthcare billing, for example — and doesn’t require a college education in order to complete, though one might consider lawyers essentially to be clerical help of a particularly specialized kind, not to mention the skilled trades. What’s wrong with apprenticeship? Besides, many adolescents are impatient: they are ready to go and do. They are done with waiting.

If college is to prepare one for a job, then why is the student paying for it instead of the employer? And if it’s not necessarily to prepare one for a job, but rather to work together to enhance our understanding of ourselves, of this world and the next, then why would we limit who can undertake that quest to those who’ve won the parental lottery? Or, to be frank, given the existential threat that robots pose to humanity, why would we limit learning at all, since increasing understanding is the only thing we will be for (maybe not even that)? Perhaps we need to ask, where else is there a community of scholars but at college?

Anyway, apply first and meet all the deadlines. You will have no idea what college will cost until three months after all the forms have been filled out.

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