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CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

LIBERAL ARTS EDUCATION TODAY

"I wasn't a good student in high school, but I wanted to prove that I can get a college diploma. I'd be the first one in my family to do it. But it's been five years and $80,000, and I still have 45 credits to go."

Overrated
One of the sadly true facts of life is that college graduates usually end up in low end jobs, at least to begin with. You can graduate with a great degree from a prestigious institution and end up flipping burgers while you look for better work - and this is not exactly rare. What's worse, you have a gigantic debt burden on your shoulders that can take decades to pay off at the very start of your adult life, when you're most likely to marry and have kids. That's a pretty sizable handicap.

Yet most companies hiring require you to have a degree before they'll even consider you for the job. It doesn't even matter what the job is, no degree and they'll almost certainly ignore your application and resume. To be sure, they'll often say "or x years of work" yet of two otherwise equally qualified applicants, the guy with the degree gets the edge and usually the nod. That scrap of paper means a lot to employers.

Yet how much does it really mean for the student? I remember well in high school the impression that I had of how things were meant to be. You graduated high school with misleadingly-named college prep courses then went to college. In your senior year, you spent time looking over different colleges, considering what degree you were going for. It was the obvious - even necessary - next step, almost as if it was state mandated like the previous three stages of education. I didn't even consider not going.

The problem is, college training isn't really even needed for most jobs. I can be a perfectly fine airplane mechanic or construction worker or welder or taxi driver or fisherman or a million other jobs without even a high school education. For some reason, these kind of jobs are looked down upon with an old world elitist attitude: "you dig ditches? How quaint." I prefer Mike Rowe's approach on the television show Dirty Jobs: these are jobs that need doing for you to enjoy your elite lifestyle and they're at least as dignified and significant as being an accountant or stock broker.

OVER-RATED (clap clap clap-clap-clap)
Which brings me to an article that President Friedman sent me this morning. I bookmarked it yesterday but didn't have time to get to it, and had enough content up already. It was going to go where the Obama/Sister Souljah post went, but that had to go up fast to be topical and I had a dim hope that maybe someone might pick that up and link it somewhere. I'm lousy at self promotion.

The story is at The Chronicle of Higher Education, by Marty Nemko, and it is entitled America's Most Overrated Product: the Bachelor's Degree. This article is the source of my tagline quote at the top. He starts out with a depressing statistic:
Among high-school students who graduated in the bottom 40 percent of their classes, and whose first institutions were four-year colleges, two-thirds had not earned diplomas eight and a half years later.
Mr Nemko points out that dropping out because you couldn't afford it, couldn't hack the long study time, or didn't have the educational chops to make it through college is a grind on your soul. I can attest personally that being booted from college destroys your self-esteem, and while that's greatly over emphasized in modern culture, it isn't exactly meaningless. I had the smarts to handle college, I could have done it monetarily due to generous grants and loans, but I wasn't ready for college. I had burnt out on schoolwork and study by about halfway through my Senior year and by the time graduation happened I couldn't get out of there fast enough.

UNPREPARED
Further, when I got to college, it was the first time I'd been away from home, was from a poor family, and was two thousand miles from home. Isolated and a year younger than everyone else there, I felt astoundingly alone. To make matters worse, the "college prep" courses, the top-end toughest classes available in my high school were like kindergarten compared to Calvin College's entry-level courses. Granted, Calvin is a fairly prestigious institution, but those courses were completely inadequate for what I faced. I learned a lot, but I was unready, and I suspect that did not help.

Again, Marty Nemko suggests this is not exactly unique:
Today, amazingly, a majority of the students whom colleges admit are grossly underprepared. Only 23 percent of the 1.3 million high-school graduates of 2007 who took the ACT examination were ready for college-level work in the core subjects of English, math, reading, and science.
However, I'm sure they feel really good about themselves and have plenty of knowledge about what words and phrases not to say and how much we're destroying the world. Even when people make it through college, they don't end up doing particularly well:
Perhaps more surprising, even those high-school students who are fully qualified to attend college are increasingly unlikely to derive enough benefit to justify the often six-figure cost and four to six years (or more) it takes to graduate. Research suggests that more than 40 percent of freshmen at four-year institutions do not graduate in six years. Colleges trumpet the statistic that, over their lifetimes, college graduates earn more than nongraduates, but that's terribly misleading. You could lock the collegebound in a closet for four years, and they'd still go on to earn more than the pool of non-collegebound — they're brighter, more motivated, and have better family connections.
HOSTILE ENVIRONMENT
This is a problem that modern business realities have made worse. As more and more people go to college, the edge of a single college graduate is dulled: it was one thing to be a graduate in a society where you were the minority, that made you stand out. Its another thing entirely to be one of a host of similarly educated people. Further, as businesses turn more toward part-time hiring and send jobs that they can overseas, the graduate's talents and learning becomes less important and valuable to a business.

As Mr Nemko says, you end up driving a truck or tending bar with your Bachelors of Business Management.

Colleges and Universities are not helping this trend, either. They are trying to get more and more students into the institutions, arguing for greater assistance to students, lowering standards (particularly for what they consider underrepresented identity groups), and as a result the number of college students who are unready or unqualified for that level of education is growing.

WASTING MONEY
Womyn's StudiesAdd to that the ridiculous, activist trash and nonsense that colleges pay to support and offer in classes and study areas, and you've got a lot of wasted money. Political correctness and the latest left leaning political theory are more determinative than quality education and truth in too many of these institutions. Colleges tend to have a lot of waste and spend a tremendous amount of money on looking really nice; I don't have a particular problem with that, but there comes a point at which you've spent more than you probably needed to. And some of the spending is just trash, as I pointed out in an earlier article on colleges and expenses:
And the last category are the superfluous expenses. This is the area where colleges can cut spending and not suffer at all. The extra money spent for a specially designed mascot, the black student union, the department of Bush Impeachment Studies, the special program to turn in people who offend you. These are areas the college or university spends money on that do not directly address academic achievement or create a proper educational environment, but are instead special interest or activist areas. These are the areas any college not only can but ought to cut, because they are using money up to no beneficial end, and likely are causing problems on campus instead.
As Mr Nemko points out, another problem is that research makes a college money while students represent a loss. Students are expensive to maintain and teach, so if you can find ways to make money rather than focus on education, that's where you lean. The football team gets a new stadium, the music department is shoved off into a closet. Professors are sometimes there primarily for their research and at best secondarily for their students, which makes the learning experience less than wholesome.

As a result, the education quality has gotten worse at universities and colleges over the years, according to several studies:
A 2006 study supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that 50 percent of college seniors scored below "proficient" levels on a test that required them to do such basic tasks as understand the arguments of newspaper editorials or compare credit-card offers. Almost 20 percent of seniors had only basic quantitative skills. The students could not estimate if their car had enough gas to get to the gas station. Unbelievably, according to the Spellings Report, which was released in 2006 by a federal commission that examined the future of American higher education, things are getting even worse: "Over the past decade, literacy among college graduates has actually declined."
COLLEGE REPAIR
Mr Nemko has some suggestions about how to repair colleges and universities, and most of them seem fine. The problem is primarily at the heart of these institutions, however, and will not be changed until that core can be cleaned out. The leftist radicals of the 60s and 70s who chained themselves to the Dean's desk are the Deans now, and they've in no way moderated their viewpoints. Conservatism and anything but the most left-leaning ideals are often banned and barred from the campus, and the result is that the leadership surrounds its self with like-minded professors and department leaders, encourages students into a united viewpoint politically and philosophically, and this whole process is fed by academic journals, meetings and the cloistered community of universities.

This won't change without some serious outside influence, without economic pressure and changes at the top. Alumni have got to stop assisting their alma mater without questioning what that learned institution is up to.

DAMMIT I'M A MAN
The thing is, I'm not so sure it really matters for most people how good colleges are. As I noted above, most people don't need a college education. Most people would find it a tremendous waste of money. I agree completely that a liberal arts education (as in the arts and sciences that support and feed liberty), but I also know from personal experience that you do not need a college to get such an education. In fact, given the state of many colleges and universities, I suspect that just such an experience may impede or reverse a liberal arts education.

So the argument I'm trying to make here is not that those dumb lug nut turners and ditch diggers are better off ignorant. We all should have a rich and full education, no matter what our job is, this is unrelated to our employment and simply part of being a human being. It is food for our soul and brings richness and importance to every aspect of life.

As I stated in my essays on education, every child should get a quality foundational education regardless of their inclinations, interests, and future career. Every child should, to the best of their ability, be taught to reason, understand, educate himself, and restate what he's learned as well as what he discovered himself. This is not part of your career, it is part of being a human being rather than a brute or a machine. You need to know and understand things about not only the world around you but yourself to really be an adult and a part of society. You are irresponsible to the social contract and your fellow members of the community if you fail to do so.

That said, again I have to state that not everyone needs a college education. If you are a very skilled auto mechanic, love your work, and do it well, you don't need a 4-8 year degree and a hundred thousand dollar debt. In fact, you're better off without such a waste of your time and talents. You have a responsibility to learn what you can and exercise your brain while you live in this career, but college is not the only place to do so.

COLLEGEFARE
This push for more people to get college educations comes from three areas, I believe. The first is a mistaken elitism that thinks that it is demeaning to be a construction worker or a farmer. You're doing labor dear, this is the 21st century. Let the Mexican workers do that.

The second is from a mistaken idea that education solves everything and brings people out of poverty. There are very poor, very well educated and intelligent people out there. There are colossally stupid, ill-educated incredibly wealthy people. A study was done in the late 90s by a Canadian group; they asked poorer and wealthier people various questions, trying to find out what they thought the secret to success was. The poorer people by a large majority said the key was education: get an education and you get money. The richer people said, by a large margin, that it was hard work.

Now, I'll hardly say that either one is the exclusive cause of financial success, but of the two, hard work is certainly the greater influence. Being smart and sitting around makes you poor. Being dumb and working hard will likely bring you greater wealth. Education isn't about money or a career, it is an end unto its self. It can assist you in your job and your financial well-being, but it is something that is good without needing a practical goal. Yet it is this this attitude that "education makes you richer" that drives most of the collegefare programs. Poor folks would do better if only they, too, could be driven insurmountably into debt by college costs.

The third driving force behind attempts to get everyone into college is a bit less benevolent, I fear. Some, at least, know that colleges and universities are often indoctrination factories churning out a monolithic worldview and would like to see more people put through this system. It takes years for college students to shake the nonsense off that they got poured into their heads by professors and activists. Ward Churchill is not, I'm sorry to say, the exception in colleges. He just got recorded and word got out. More people in college means more people at that formative time in your maturity and intellectual advancement for the left to grab hold and keep you longer. It's also an end run around home schooling: OK you got the kid for a while while they are young and avoided the PC system but we can get you into college and do it there.

Overall colleges and universities are damaged and flawed from the top down. They are in deep need of renovation and the entire system should be, I believe, reexamined for the quality and efficiency of education offered. At the same time, for most people this drive to get them in college is really extraneous. You don't need that experience, and it can even be damaging. So yeah, I agree with the basic premise of Mr Nemko's essay. The Bachelor's degree is America's most overrated product.
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