A few weeks ago, my Facebook feed contained the headline: “A 3D Printed House for Under $4,000.” Dutifully, I clicked and found more evidence of the old saying, “If it sounds too good to be true, it isn’t.” True, a nonprofit built a supercool prototype in Austin, Texas, but it didn’t cost $4,000. Good luck getting the windows for $4,000. And that arty industrial metal roof isn’t included. Did you want electricity and plumbing?

The prototype is a fund-raising gimmick pitched to Austin hipsters, who are among the worst. One of the videos paused over a four-pack of autumnal mead. The nonprofit’s actual plan is to build these houses in developing countries. If “printing” walls with extruded mortar — walls being the only thing “printed”— proves an efficient construction technique, great. But could we please stop with the magical thinking about 3D printing?

A while back, there was a spate of articles with such titles as “3D Printing Will Alter the Course of Destiny.” A 2013 iteration from Mashable, for example, announced excitedly that 3D printing is “available and affordable to individual consumers.”

“From scale models, gifts and clothing to prosthetic limbs, hearing aids and the prospect of 3D-printed homes, the possibilities seem endless,” the article read.

The idea, I suppose, was to get you excited about an affordable 3D printer that would whip out a hearing aid for grandpa and a Pikachu figurine for your niece. Since a pretty good 2D printer ran about $599, and 3D is only 50 percent more dimensions than 2D, you’d probably be able to score a 3D version for under a thousand. And think of the money you’d save on clothing and prosthetic limbs!

Reality being what it is, such breathlessness has abated. If you want a “printer” that “prints” something worth having (concrete walls, for example), be prepared to shell out tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars. If you want Pikachu figurines, you can buy six for $3.95 on eBay.

Basically, a 3D printer is a machine that makes something. We’ve had these for a long time. Calling it a “printer” references some vague relationship to reality, since these machines work by adding material — like toner to a piece of paper — not by removing it (machining), dumping it in a mold, stamping it, etc.

Put another way, 3D printer is a metaphor. It describes one thing in terms of another. Metaphors can illuminate, but they often obscure. Your love may be a red, red rose, but does that mean it will decay in a few days? What you’re reading is literal print that was actually printed, unlike concrete walls that were metaphorically printed.

Other than printers, you’re probably asking, what other metaphors classify under a single term wildly disparate things? College, for one.

Trump University wasn’t very much like Harvard University, even though they’re both called universities. Americans will pay high dollar for a “university education” that, at best, can make a Pikachu figurine. Figuratively speaking.

Unlike Trump's, many for-profit universities, federal largesse fueled a machine that turned a good profit, but was plagued by low graduation rates, poor job prospects and high student debt. When the Obama administration turned off the spigot, many tanked. Thanks, Obama! (Information has been corrected to fix an error. 10/22/18 at 2:08 p.m. See correction at the end of the column.)

Like 3D printing, higher education encourages magical thinking: Insert students, apply curricula and out the other end comes a stack of graduates prepared for the modern workforce. It doesn’t always work out that way.

In a recent article in the online magazine Quillette, Daniel Friedman points out that U.S. participation in higher education — about 65 percent — is among the highest in the world. But fully a third of those matriculating never receive a degree of any kind. Graduation rates correlate strongly with the selectivity of the institution. For the most selective four-year colleges, nearly 9 in 10 students earn their degrees. At the least selective, it’s 1 in 3.

At the risk of compromising my strained analogy (which I introduced only because “3D printing” has always irritated me and I wanted to get that off my chest), this isn’t primarily because Harvard is a better printer than Backwoods State. The primary difference is that it gets better paper. If Harvard freshmen attended BSU, its graduation rate would skyrocket.

More important, students aren’t paper. Curiously, Backwoods State seems to think so. Its curriculum looks a lot like Harvard’s. But two out of three students jam up somewhere along the way. It’s trying to do what Harvard does but failing most of the time. We wouldn’t tolerate this sort of disparity in, say, surgeons.

Friedman argues, persuasively I think, that our belief in college for everyone ignores that a one-size-fits-all concept of higher education simply doesn’t work very well. His solution is contentious: Move to a German-style system in which rigorous academic tracking qualifies relatively few students to attend university.

Tracking is always a hard sell in the U.S., and it’s further complicated by the fact that so many jobs require, irrationally, a college degree. (Why is that, anyway? As a teacher and administrator, I often point out that a graduate degree is helpful in teaching, whereas administration requires no real skills at all — only basic common sense and the discretion to know when not to use it.)

The up side would be that what we now think of as “college” could become many things and gain in the process a closer relationship to reality.

Correction: Romine's Sunday column intitially identified Trump University as a for-profit university supported by federal funds. Although many for-profit universities are supported in this way, Trump University was not accredited and did not quality to receive financial aid.

Make sure you never miss our editorials, letters to the editor and columnists. We’ll deliver the News & Record's Opinion page straight to your inbox.

Load comments