Chasing Tails
Sunday, July 8, 2012 at 09:59AM
Lindsay Cohn

I just read an article on how Montana is doing such a great job of increasing its college enrollment and graduation rates. This involved, among other things, paying students on academic probation to come to help sessions where they'd get tutoring and other helpful hints to get them through college. Student services offices changed their names to Offices of Student Success. Yay.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not against helping students who are struggling. All for it, in fact. This article, however, exposed several of the problems we as a country have with education. I don't have the answers (unfortunately), but I do have some things to say about it.

1. What do the numbers tell us?

The first thing that struck me about this article was that it was all about how many people enrolled and how many people graduated. Nowhere in the entire article was there a single word about whether any of these people were actually learning anything. This is a general problem with the way that education - primary, secondary, and post-secondary - is evaluated in this country. A certain public four-year university, which shall remain nameless, managed to increase its enrollment significantly ... by admitting students who weren't meeting its admissions standards. I bet we could increase graduation rates by holding students' hands all the way through the process, too, but guess what? Those students won't be able to find jobs on their own, much less hold them down. One of the only things that still makes university education in this country meaningful is that people can fail. We don't WANT them to fail, but we also don't want their success to be smoke and mirrors so we can pass them off to the labor market, where their failure will have far worse consequences. Bottom line: we must figure out a way to assess whether students are actually learning anything. This leads me to the next point ...

2. What exactly is a university supposed to do?

In my view, one of the biggest problems we have as a country is that we have no clear understanding, and in fact quite a bit of disagreement, about what a university education is supposed to do. Ask most people, and they will tell you that it's supposed to get you a job. Well, yes and no.

Obviously, everyone wants/needs a job. Does every job out there require a university degree? "No ... but". The "but" has to do with all the research showing that those with university degrees earn significantly more over their lifetimes than those without, on average. Does this mean that getting a university degree will ensure that any given person will earn more than he/she would have without that university degree? It does not. Why? Because while that piece of paper may get you in the door, if you blew through university without learning anything, at some point your employer is going to notice that you're incompetent and unreliable, and you will get fired, or not ever get a raise, or whatever. This is the point at which many college graduates start thinking that college was a waste of time because it didn't give them any "marketable skills".

This, my friends, is because college doesn't GIVE you anything. It is an opportunity for you to learn higher-order skills. If you don't, then yes, college was a waste of time for you. But not because taking a core liberal arts curriculum is useless and pointless, and not because there are no jobs out there in philosophy. It's because too many people treat 4-year universities AS THOUGH they were trade schools, while at the same time being all proud of themselves for not being in a [sneer] trade school. Note this passage from the article:

Like other states, [Montana] had to overcome perceptions that two-year colleges are little more than trade schools for students whose grades aren’t good enough to go to four-year universities — a matter made worse in Montana, where many of them were, in fact, vocational high schools before being transformed, in the mid-1990s, into so-called “colleges of technology.”

I'd love to assume that the perception Montana had to overcome was that trade schools were only for kids whose grades didn't get them into 4-year colleges, but I'm betting that's not what the author meant. Especially with the reference to how things were "made worse" by the fact that lots of these 2-year institutions used to be vocational high schools. The Horror!

This is a huge problem for America: we whine so much about losing jobs, but we look down our noses at learning a trade or vocation? That's only for dumb people? It would be bad enough if our only problem were our self-defeating arrogance, but then we expect universities to churn out basically vocationally-trained people (i.e. people who are thoroughly prepared, immediately upon graduation, for a particular job)? We are setting ourselves up for failure.

I personally think - and this is just a theory - that all this comes from Americans' rabid desire to be a classless society. I don't know when this started to happen. Maybe it's part of the "American Dream". You know, my parents were JUST working class, but I went to college, and now I'm Middle Class and my children will go to graduate school and be Upper Middle Class, etc. (n.b., I have about as much graduate education as it's possible to get, and I make way less than the clerk in the university president's office. Just sayin'). Wherever it comes from, it's not realistic and it's not healthy. I'd much rather see us start treating so-called "working class" people with the respect they deserve than try to eliminate the working class by having everyone become an accountant or engineer.

I'm getting off on a tangent, though. My original question was: what is university supposed to do, if it's NOT designed to give students a trade? (note: I'm going to focus on Anglo-Saxon tradition. Continental Europe: different). A big part of the answer is: a broad, liberal education. What job can I get with that? Well, here's the thing: THAT'S NOT THE POINT. Universities were not established to prepare people for jobs (except for the professions: law, medicine, the church, and, by derivation from the church, teaching). They were established to be centers of learning ... for the sake of learning. They were established to allow humans to study what makes us human, and to become more human thereby. They were meant to allow the upper classes (who were the only ones who went there until around the early 20th century) to have something to talk about when they met at parties: art, literature, philosophy, religion, science. The whole concept of a university is infused with class. The working classes were assumed to have neither the time nor the energy to care about great art or literature. They were living bone-crushing lives and barely making it from one pay day to the next. More subtle, and somewhat more sinister, was the assumption that working class people WERE in fact less fully human than the upper classes. This was connected in turn to a widespread political philosophy that granted the franchise only to those with enough property to have the leisure to be educated and interested in higher-order questions ... that is, questions of an order higher than "shall we have enough to eat tonight?"

So much for the origins of universities. Of course, I hope that we today have a different view of humanity and I would argue that EVERYONE ought to have access to the opportunity for a broad, liberal education. That being said, not everyone wants one, and certainly in PURE economic terms, no society NEEDS everyone to have one. In social and moral terms, I think society would be better off with more people going to university and getting a liberal education. In economic terms, it's just not necessary. Which is why it's such a ridiculous notion to try to evaluate the success of universities in purely economic terms.

All that being said, we as a society have moved well beyond the point where most jobs involve pure vocational skills. We have a complex economy requiring management, problem-solving, innovation, and so on. And this brings me to my next point.

3. Critical thinking *IS* a skill that can get you a job

In the article, the governor of Montana (Brian Schweitzer, D) says

People who are getting degrees in philosophy and history, God bless them, it’s wonderful that they’re critical thinkers. But now they’re going back to a college of technology to get a life skill to get a job.

This is one of the most destructive things this man could possibly have said. It indicates that critical thinking is something that rich people play at in their leisure time, like having a yacht. As I point out above, a liberal education is not DESIGNED to get you a job, but trying to get any kind of upper-level job without having good critical thinking skills is futile. Try going to law school, going into consulting, going into upper management, going into high-innovation fields like bio-tech or communications without critical thinking skills, and at some point someone will notice that the emperor has no clothes. Critical thinking is about being able to understand a problem, figure out the pieces of the problem, come up with multiple possible ways of solving the problem, evaluate the costs and benefits of those options, select the best, etc. This is not a trade skill. You must know something about history, something about psychology, something about logic, something about communication, in order to do this effectively. In every survey of employers (in non-vocational fields) for the last five to ten years, the number one thing the employers say they wish their employees had is critical/analytical thinking skills. Liberal education may not be designed to get you a job, but there are a lot of jobs that can't be done without one. Which brings me to my next point:

4. Your major does not define your career

I will be the first to admit that universities do a terrible job of educating students about the huge range of jobs that are available to them. My points above also are not meant to imply that I think universities bear no responsibility in helping their graduates get jobs. Here is the problem, though: again, everyone seems to expect universities to function just like trade schools, only with higher-paying jobs. Do a course in Welding or Dental Hygiene and, guess what! You will be qualified upon graduation for a job in ... welding. Or dental hygiene. Nothing else. But you could start tomorrow and you'd know what to do. University majors, with a very few exceptions, simply do not function like this. There is no particular type of job associated with a Sociology major, or a Physics major, or a German major, or a Geography major, but that does not mean they are useless and pointless. The types of jobs out there that want college graduates do not expect them (again, there are a few exceptions, e.g. Education or Accounting majors) to know already how to do the job they are going to do. No one who hires a college grad to run a policy office or manage a team of mechanics or investigate murders or curate a museum expects that person to have been specifically prepared for that job. What they expect is a person who is broadly educated, who can learn on the job quickly, who can figure things out for him/herself, who can act intelligently and responsibly in the face of unfamiliar, difficult, urgent, and quickly-changing conditions. THESE are the things college students are supposed to be learning. Now, it's helpful, if you want to be a museum curator, to have studied some art and art history. You'll probably have a tough time competing with other applicants if you never took any such classes. But do you HAVE to major in it? Probably not. What if you majored in Philosophy with an Art History minor? You might be perfect, and museums WILL look at your application. Majors and minors in college are simply indicators to your potential employers of what kinds of things you concentrated on learning about. As any college career counselor will tell you: majors do not get you jobs.

Thus, when people start talking about how we don't need Philosophy majors or Art majors or German majors, in one sense, they are correct, but in a far more important sense, they are dead wrong. They are correct in that there are few or no jobs out there for which the description says "must be Philosophy major to apply". It may also be harder to see what kinds of jobs WOULD be interested in the kind of person who was a Philosophy major. That is what career counselors are SUPPOSED to help with. In a far more important sense, however, we DO need Art and Music and Philsophy and French majors, because it is these things that prevent us from becoming a society of machines. Why would you want a manager who has never thought about anything but management, when you could have an equally good manager who delights in finding just the right piece of music to inspire his team when he notices them flagging? Won't the pure manager be more efficient, you ask? Not if most recent research on workplace efficiency is to be believed. Human beings are NOT machines, and we are NOT purely economic creatures. We care about humor, and beauty, and morality ... and I bet even more of us would care more if we were allowed to think about it without being told that such things were pointless and wouldn't get us jobs.

(note: another thing employers say they wish their employees had learned in college: ethics. oops.)

It is absolutely true that we do not need many GRADUATE STUDENTS in the humanities, as graduate studies in these fields are aimed mainly at preparing teachers, and we need only so many teachers of these subjects. But for Pete's sake, allow the 18-23-year-olds to think about history and literature and music before they are forced to spend all their time thinking about money.

And now for my last point:

5. The higher cannot stand without the lower

All of this talk about college/university skirts the real problem in this country, which is primary and secondary education. Many universities, at this point, are scrambling simply to teach students what they should have learned in grade school, and don't have time to teach them what they should be learning in college. Professors are neither trained nor prepared to teach basic reading, writing, and arithmetical skills, yet we cannot teach anything else when our institutions are fielding and admitting students without these skills. Another problem I have noticed is that the vast majority of students my colleagues and I see have absolutely no idea how to learn effectively. They come to class, try desperately to copy down every word I say, then try to memorize it all. I keep trying to explain to them that this is a massive waste of time and that the point is to try to understand and be able to apply concepts, but it usually takes all semester for this idea to sink in, by which time they all have carpal tunnel syndrome and are unhappy that they wasted all their time memorizing things that they will "never need to know". The students, you see, have all been led to believe that the only reason they are in a university is to learn a particular trade, get their piece of paper that says they sat through this awful, mind-numbing waste of time, and then get a job. The idea that they might learn something just for the sake of learning it, or for the sake of thinking about the questions, images, and feelings that have moved humanity from the dawn of history, never occurs to them. The idea that there might be more to life than getting a job also does not seem to occur to them.

Colleges and Universities cannot provide this sort of higher-order learning unless primary and secondary institutions are doing their jobs educating people. The economy cannot function for long when the entire educational system is passing the buck. And that is what we are all doing. Kid can't read? Send him on to the next grade and let them deal with it. Kid can't write a coherent sentence? Just pass him through - his first employer will figure that out soon enough and it won't be our problem.But it IS our problem. The more hollow we allow the system to become, the worse our economic performance will be (and, not so incidentally, the worse our cultural, social, and moral problems will become), and that has negative implications for all of us. Tax base goes down, guess what gets cut: Education. Innovation goes down, growth slows, debt becomes hard to service ... massive recession and/or depression.

Focusing on getting more people to attend or graduate from college is a cosmetic fix. It is vital to ensure first that our children are getting a decent basic education at the primary and secondary levels, and then to work on issues of access and quality at the post-secondary level. We could improve a lot by improving connections between businesses and schools - both secondary and post-secondary - so that students get a more realistic idea of what jobs are available and what skills they require. We need counselors in high schools who are not afraid to encourage young people with a vocational bent to go to a trade school rather than a 4-year college. We need college career counselors AND COLLEGE PROFESSORS who explain to students what college is really for, and how that fits in with the need to find a job afterwards.

As everyone knows, education is a massively complex problem. There are the teachers, the parents, the social and cultural context, the technological context, the government spending, the controversies over what and how to teach, the problems of poverty and poor nutrition and danger in schools ... There is simply no easy way to improve education in this country. I would suggest standardizing teacher training at the national level, so that we could at least ensure that all teachers are basically competent, but even that would be controversial here. As inefficient as it is, I think that we in the post-secondary world have to do something about it, because we have the most opportunity. I suggest we start by talking to students (and parents, if we can get hold of them) about the meaning of education and how economic activity fits into a larger picture of human activity. These students will have friends and colleagues; they will have children; they will become active in their communities and PTAs, and maybe, eventually, the incentives will be straightened out at least a little. We should also talk to state legislatures, when we can, and of course have discussions with our own administrations, about what education means and how to fulfil our mission and stay solvent at the same time. I'm not suggesting lobbying for any particular policies; I'm saying that we won't get anything done until more Americans start to understand that universities are not purely economic institutions ... any more than humans are purely economic beings.

 

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