Sunday, September 2, 2012

Higher Education -- Do We Need More College Graduates?

I'm listening to public television (as if it were radio) and the current broadcast, actually about to end, is a debate on whether the United States needs more college graduates in order to remain an economic power.  The people who say no have some interesting reasons for thinking we don't.  They say such things as:  not everyone is capable of getting through college; college students don't spend enough time studying and colleges are too much like country clubs (promoting hedonistic behavior); colleges have slipped in their educational standards; not every job requires a college education; colleges exist in order to separate the brightest from the less bright.  I find these attitudes a bit depressing, since they reflect, to me at least, the following:  the belief that education is only for the purpose of getting jobs (albeit the actual question is phrased to lead one to believe that's the issue); the belief that only those likely to succeed should be granted permission to try; the premise that if colleges are not up to snuff, the solution is to send fewer people; the premise that if college students tend to be lazy, college is a worthless institution.

I don't buy any of these beliefs or premises.  I never thought of my higher education as being for the purpose of getting a job.  It can be; doctors have to go to medical school; laywers have to go to law school.  The professions have education that goes beyond mere training.  Most "jobs" require, at best, training, and there are schools just for that too.  It doesn't hurt for a future hamburger flipper to go to college, and it may not be a waste of that person's money and energies to get an education no matter where, if at all, in the work force that person lands.  Personal growth is not all geared toward vocation.  I have no idea what kind of education the fabulous tenor Alfie Boe had, but I think he was selling cars before he was discovered.  Whatever his education was, would it have been wasted if he never had been discovered, and kept selling cars, and sang for his own pleasure, and learned different languages in order to be able to sing opera, and enjoyed his deep knowledge of musical matters?  (Yeah I know he's not American and we're talking about the United States here, or at least the program was; and yes I did say the issue concerns our being an economic power.  So some American guy selling cars and humming Verdi probably doesn't contribute enough to our economic power to satisfy people who think that's all college is for.  Maybe it's the question with which I should take issue!  But it is what it is, and I'll try to consider it.  I consider it thusly:  people who grow personally make different judgments about the world than people who do not become self-aware, or aware of those around them in liberal ways, and I am not speaking politically -- there is a reason why colleges offer liberal arts programs.  we hear reference to being "well rounded." That means having an education liberal in its scope and not focused on just one discipline.  It's a big world and a liberal education better prepares a person to understand it in a wider context.  Again, liberal here is not the opposite of conservative; it is the opposite of narrow.  Well, the liberal arts student is unlikely to get a job that uses every single aspect of his or her formal education, but more importantly, s/he has learned how to learn, and that is very valuable in any profession, even in any job, however menial.  iIt makes that person an asset to his or her country however s/he interacts with its economic system.

As for not everyone's being able to get through college:  we have the SAT and other aptitude tests that winnow out less qualified applicants, but to winnow them out because we don't have enough classes, because college is too expensive, because our high schools suck so badly that kids with potential have their potential squashed or ignored, or because we simply don't think everyone deserves a chance to try, is unconscionable.  No one, even granting the hugest scholarship to the brightest-looking overachiever, can guarantee graduation.  If a kid is willing and if we can give him or her the means to try, there is no reason to say "s/he doesn't need to go to college."  I have a dear, dear friend who was told, in high school, that she should not shoot for college, since, due to the color of her skin, she was destined to be a maid anyway.  She is one of the most intelligent people I know and the counselor who told her that, I can safely say without having met him or her, was an idiot.

I have to admit I did not study in college.  I did not know how.  The schools I attended did not teach me how to study; they mostly wanted me to memorize stuff and I was undisciplined enough not to want to do that.  (I did memorize the names of all the bones of the body in order to pass a summer biology class, since I'd failed it during the year.  In general, I prefer to understand things.)  Nonetheless, I learned a lot, much of which had nothing to do with the courses I took (some of which, I admit, were also valuable).  Country club?  I don't think so!  A place with some measure of personal freedom so that a young adult can explore and experiment and learn how to learn?  Absolutely!  Does everyone take advantage of that?  Absolutely not.  Does that mean artificial restrictions should be placed upon who may try for higher education?  Absolutely not.

Does higher education, like primary and secondary education, need work?  It sure does.  I don't think abolishing unions so that teachers earn even less than they do now makes any sense.  Teachers are already underpaid and undervalued, and every time a kid fails a test, whose fault is it?  The teacher's!  (And sometimes it is; teachers also suffer from their own imperfect educations!)  Schools need to hire good teachers, and to hire and keep them, schools need to pay and care for teachers properly.  Unions exist to make sure that happens.  Be all that as it may, the fact that  we need to work on that issue is not any kind of excuse for holding some students back, or for not trying our best to make higher education accessible to everyone who is willing to reach for it.


Matters Mojo said...

This is the problem with teleology - purpose is by its nature not intrinsic, and so for anything the limit of its purposes is the limit of human imagination. One can very well use a college education to make oneself more employable; one can use it to score drugs or chicks; to dodge the draft; to hide from one's doubt over one's own future; to blossom socially; to become politically aware; to learn for learning's sake; to meet or defy parental expectation...

It may be that the teleological question of why a student becomes a student is the wrong one to pursue; it may be that the operative question is the one posed in your blog title, which has to do with the instrumental value to society at large of having more college graduates. From that perspective, the higher unemployment rate among new college graduates compared with the population at large, the demand for those graduates in the workplace, the reality of the debts they accrue attaining their education, the legitimate questions over the value for money either students or society get out of higher education (i.e. the problem of education inflation, the next 'bubble' to burst in my opinion), and the desirability of enhancing a population with the attitudes and aptitudes common among new college graduates, are all important factors for consideration.

I'm going to offer a controversial opinion - education for its own sake is a luxury, not a right. I'll add a corollary - education is a luxury that is available to anybody who can read, and it doesn't require formalizing in a collegiate environment any more than it requires funding from the commons. Education as an adjunct to employment is a valuable commodity at market, and government has a role to play in ensuring fairness in transactions involving that commodity; seperately, there is sufficient social desirability in encouraging universal access to education for this purpose on grounds of ability rather than socioeconomic status that it is appropriate to consider commons subsidy for such education. I'd like to see that done either in tandem with, or by tax-code adjustments for, the corporations that are going to hire these new graduates: make them put skin in the game, rather than load the debt onto the eager young thirsters after knowledge. I also think it's disingenuous, and damaging, to conflate education for its own sake - which is the kind most students will choose to pursue, ceteris paribus - with education for employment. The Chinese government, proferring the latter to students who pursued the former, reaped the whirlwind of this in Tiananmen in the 1990s; our government, pushing the specious attractions of educational attainment entirely separate from applications in the economy, is risking similar pushback from a generation of over-entitled and disgruntled citizens.

That's just my opinion, though. Apologies for the length of this response.

genessa said...

no problem with length, your reply was interesting. i even agree with some of your observations. i don't agree with all of the conclusions of even the agreed-with observations. for example, i don't agree that education for its own sake, for personal improvement, is a luxury. i think a society of personally improved citizens becomes a substantially better society, one better able to tell truth from lies or at least fact from fiction, one less able to be swayed by propaganda, one less manipulable. of course that depends too upon personality and individual intellect, but we should strive for a population of thoughtful, creative people. it won't happen, but it will happen for more than if we don't so strive, or if we strive for the opposite. i contend that we do strive for the opposite, that we deliberately suppress the capabilities of our citizens, that we are afraid of intellect and education, as all manipulators are. i contend that those who would dismantle the department of education are not just aimlessly choosing a department in order to decrease spending, and that those who referred back in the day to "effete snobs" meant "people who can see through my crap." i believe it's worth any cost to educate as many people as highly as possible, regardless of how many people make any kind of use of it, even if all we get out of it is one more informed voter, dog catcher, burger flipper. i think it's vital, in fact. sure, colleges need to slim down and charge less; that may seem like part of the argument against my argument, but it's mostly beside the point. the point is that information is power and that goes double for education, and power is always doled out very judiciously, even in a society like ours which is supposed to be of, for and by the people. and i apologize for not mentioning this in my original blog! but there it is.


p.s. in our current state of education, not everyone can read, so education is not as readily available a luxury as it may appear to be; in addition, it is important to be taught how to self-educate and that simply is not taught, nationwide, until the college level, and sometimes not even there.

Matters Mojo said...

Rebuttal :-P

1. A luxury is not something without value; indeed, a luxury is generally something with a conspicuous value. A luxury is something for which there is no NECESSITY. You say that a society of 'personally improved' citizens is 'better,' but that is both a tautology and a petitio principii - naturally, anything that 'improves' a people will make their 'society' better, but we should be careful in identifying what 'improves' a people.

2. You identify as a measure of 'improvement' the critical faculty of the average citizen - their ability to discern propaganda. But you're also observant enough to acknowledge that this is not a necessary component of publicly-funded education - indeed, throughout the school system, indoctrination in the form of "teaching to the test" is very much the norm, to the detriment of the system and students I would say. There is evidence to support the argument that colleges, en masse and in particular as well as at the levels of individual faculties and professors, have a tendency to be indoctrinators rather than enablers of critical thinking. It is possible to gain a college qualification in economics without making any study of the Austrian school, which is as absurd as going through high school without learning the theory of evolution; and it is possible to be taught Austrian economics alongside the theories of Karl Marx as if they are equivalent, which is of a piece with teaching creationism alongside evolution as competing on an equal scientific footing.

3. "The tao that can be taught is not the Tao" - it's actually very difficult to teach somebody to think for themselves, certainly in a classroom setting and certainly in the context of a curriculum leading toward some form of assessment (which seems to be an appropriate approach to pedagogy, although there are charter schools which apply a more integrated and oblique model that more closely mirrors workplace environments - whatever we might feel about the desirability of the latter, only those of us for whom education and everything else is strictly a luxury pursuit can avoid them).

Matters Mojo said...

4. You said "we should strive for a population of thoughtful, creative people." We should have in our society gravediggers, street-sweepers, hot-dog vendors, hotel maids, creche attendants, kennel hands - is it really so desirable that these people be thoughtful, creative, versed in the liberal arts? Can this do other than make them dissatisfied with their lot? One might as well say that, in lieu of a publicly-funded educational system we should have publicly-funded monasteries, in which all citizens were required to spend some portion of their formative years developing a level of inner peace that makes them contented with their lot in life. It sounds very noble on paper, and I'm not being as dismissive of it as I'm sounding, to have everybody aspire to be the President - but, you know, only one of us gets there at any given time, and that leaves more than 300 million also-rans. When the average college education costs upwards of $20,000 to achieve, and especially when the economy might leave graduates fighting for the same jobs they would have ended up in without broadening their horizons, that should be a component in our felicific calculus. I haven't even mentioned dropout rates, or the Dodo-verdict approach many institutions take towards expectations of competence in light of students' varied educational and socioeconomic backgrounds. It truly defeats the economic purpose of education if everybody can graduate cum laude just for giving it the good old college try - and I'd argue that the progressive purpose of recognizing achievement were better served by adopting objective rather than subjective scales of measure. You wouldn't encourage every student in a school to try out for the football team (at least, if you did, you'd ingrain some social divides among classmates), although you should support any student who wants to participate in finding the niche that suits their talents and aptitudes. It's a hard balance to strike.

... I really should work on brevity ...

genessa said...

i cannot buy your rebuttal. a well educated gravedigger is more of an asset to society than an ignorant one, and is less likely to start fights, commit violent crimes or vote for liars. we don't need rocket science either, by your assessment. we could live for generation upon generation ad infinitum in caves, or as hunter-gatherers. brevity is not my strong suit either but having the flu means i can't concentrate easily for long periods of time, despite what education, formal and informal, i may have, so i will have to leave the above for now as my rebuttal to your rebuttal.


Matters Mojo said...

Sorry to hear you have flu. My best wishes for a speedy recovery.

And, since I managed not to include this in my earlier rebuttal, thanks for your gracious responses. I enjoyed discussing this with you.

genessa said...

thanks for your good wishes :-)) it has been interesting; it's not an easy topic with quick answers! no doubt it will be much debated though infinite future generations, if we manage not to blow ourselves up (another reason we need the most education of any kind we can get, for our species does seem bent upon self-destruction!)